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Archive for the ‘germany’ Category

Well, we’re back, and already super busy, so a quick wrap-up.

Saturday morning, we all (including my daughter) took the train up to Munich.  We’d be flying out on Sunday morning, she’d go back to her home in the south at the same time.

We arrived in Munich about 10:30, found our hotel, checked our bags, and set out into the very cold Munich morning. That day was the coldest we’d experienced – including our time on the Zugspitze, it felt at times. I didn’t have big plans for the day, which is good, since it was so cold, our program  quickly evolved into: Walk in one direction, duck into a warm place, venture out again, walk…find warmth. Now. 

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What did we see?  The lovely architecture of the very clean city of Munich. Mobs of people.  By early evening, the streets were more crowded and challenging to navigate than Times Square.

The New Town Hall – with the glockenspiel wedding feast revolving at noon, and then carolers at 5:30.

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Christkindl markets everywhere. More sausages, schnitzel and gluhwein.

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The Medieval Market:

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We eventually found our way to the Alte Pinkothek Museum, much of which was under renovation, but the open sections of which had some wonderful works of late Medieval and Renaissance art. It was warm, too.

The major task after that was to find Mass.  We would be leaving too early in the morning to go on Sunday, and I really didn’t want to wait until Birmingham at 6pm to go. I had attempted to find Saturday evening Masses in Munich before we left, but without real conviction, since I didn’t know the city and didn’t know where we’d be in the early evening.  I just rested my hopes on the fact that there are lots of Catholic churches in Munich, and the odds are that we’d be near one or two of them around 5 or 6 o’clock.

And we were – St. Peter’s Church, the oldest parish in Munich. 

Mass celebrated ad orientem, Communion at the altar rail – some received kneeling, others standing.  The music was marvelous.  A male schola sang, mostly a cappella. There was little chant and no Latin, but the music was solid, substantive German liturgical music. It just shows, I supposed, what “inculturation” can mean when there’s, you know, an actual culture to build on.

We got some pizza for the boys, and then headed back to the hotel.  My daughter and I would eat at the Thai restaurant I said I’d seen across the street from the hotel. What? No German food? Well….I’d been eating German food all week.  My daughter lives in Germany. I figured she’d appreciate a change, and she agreed.

Trouble was….it wasn’t a Thai restaurant I’d seen.  It was a Thai grocery.  

So now, at 8:40 pm, we are faced with the task of finding an open restaurant outside the city center. Not as easy as it sounds in Munich.  We walked down one street, then another, found a couple of Italian restaurants which didn’t interest us, passed another small Christkindl market, saw a McDonald’s in the distance, shuddered, and then, in the nick of time, found a tiny little Turkish restaurant called TuDoRa…and it was great. 

Marvelous server. Other customers who greeted each other warmly with hugs and great shouts of joy. A fellow who picked the lute on display off the wall and started to play.

The menu was in Turkish, so I asked the waitress to recommend something.  She asked me if I preferred meat or vegetables, and I said the latter,so she brought me a lovely plate of grilled and wrapped things, brought my daughter falafel,and it was all quite wonderful – one of the best meals I had in Germany.

…..

We got ourselves up the next morning, arrived at the airport in plenty of time, took off at 9:45 am (Munich time), and were in Atlanta by 2 (Eastern) where we watched a drug dog at the Atlanta baggage claim dig into a wrapped-up box owned by a man who looked like a cross between Owen Wilson and Dolph Lungren and who told the agent that the box contained what everyone brings from Munich – herbal tea bags and whole chili peppers.

And then back in Alabama by 4, where we were driven home by a taxi driver with an 18-inch monitor propped up in the front passenger seat, on which he was watching the NFL.  While driving.

Welcome home!

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The main activity of the day was a hike through, above and down around the Partnach Gorge. 

First, we rode the bus to the Olympic ski stadium  – Garmisch-Partenkirchen.  Hitler forced the two towns to consolidate in order to strengthen his bid to host the 1936 Winter Olympics in the area – there weren’t enough hotel rooms in either one alone. It worked.  The town was to host the 1940 Games as well, but of course starting World War II ended that idea.

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You walk around to the right, and start walking up a road/path. Past goats.

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Past this.

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By then, you’re walking by flowing water, and before too long you arrive at a ticket booth, where you pay a few Euros, and start walking through the gorge, which gets deeper (or higher) as you go on.  It’s quite something, and I’d also love to see it in the winter.

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Most people get through and then retrace their steps, but at my daughter’s advice, we took a rather strenuous twenty-minute hike up the mountain, where we stopped, had a snack at the restaurant up top, saw the hotel that’s being constructed, and then started back down another way that took us across the Gorge this time.

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This picture cannot in any way do the height justice.  I’m usually pretty okay with heights, but this was a little….high.

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Can’t capture the scale from this angle and with my camera.

And then back down, back past the goats, then back here to shop, pack up, eat, pack up some more, and get ready…..

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Waiting for the bus at the Ski Stadium.

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Today was Innsbruck day.  My daughter was working, and she’s already been once, so it was good day for us to go.

We originally thought we’d take the bus.  Daughter said it was cheap, faster than the train and there was free wi-fi.  But when I finally got around to looking up tickets, the soonest we could leave was noon.  It turned out that the train, while a little longer (about 80 minutes) was just a euro more expensive total, round trip for us.

So, after returning the rental car…

(what preceded returning said rental car? Well….getting car out of the overnight parking lot under a grocery store down the street, taking daughter to her workplace/residence, remembering…”OH! GAS!”…finding a gas station, figuring out the pump and what kind of gas, filling up, returning the car, walking back to the apartment, grabbing breakfast pastries….all by 9 am)

….we walked to the train station, bought tickets, found our train at the platform, and settled in.

So what to do in Innsbruck?

Yes, there are a few things to do – there are historic sites, nice churches, Olympics things (although the ski jump is closed for the season…not that we’d jump, but I guess you can go see it and maybe there’s a museum) and an Old Town section…the first thing on our docket was…

…the zoo.

I’d read about it last night, but not mentally committed to it until we pulled into Innsbruck.  I’d not mentioned it to anyone, either, until someone finally asked, “Hey.  What are we going to do in Innsbruck, anyway?”

So yes, there’s the difference between traveling with kids and without.  I just felt, at that moment, for that afternoon, the leg-stretching and freedom afforded by a zoo visit was important.

It’s the Alpenzoo, and it’s fairly interesting, the population being composed only of Alpine animals.  Plus, it’s built on the side of a mountain, lending not only authenticity, but…exercise.

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The views were spectacular.

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The structure to the left-center – the large cobra-like thing? The Olympic ski jump (1964 & 1976)

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You can get there any number of ways. It’s not far from the city, so you can certainly walk it, especially in this part of the world where people out for an evening stroll do so with walking sticks in hand. You can take the bus, but you can also take the funicular – so we did.

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The funicular station as seen from the zoo entrance.

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The funicular descending.

(The funicular continues up to the top of this mountain, and we considered doing that, but by the time we finished at the zoo, it was 3pm, we’d already done the Zugspitze anyway, so…nah.)

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(Not shown: a lynx up in a tree, wolves, a bear, beavers, bison, otters, various other mountain goat creatures and lots of birds, newts, salamanders and such. Marmosets were hibernating.)

For the rest of our time, we strolled around the Christkindl Markets – Innsbruck has several, spread through the Old Town. The boys ate schnitzel, I had a cup of guhlwein, we walked.

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I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of imagery…the Blessed Virgin , a steak house and Geox…

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Part of the town was decorated with these rather odd, sometimes creepy and crudely-made fairy and folk-tale reliefs.  Along with light projections.

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It’s a great atmosphere, although about 99% secular. I also learned that my expectations of finding unique hand-made items at a Christmas market were, at least in this case…way off.

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But if I was looking for a cannoli-like thing almost as big as my head…they had me covered.

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Now, I have no huge interest in the castles of poor mad King Ludwig II, but I thought…can we really be this close (30 minutes from Linderhof, an hour from the other two major ones)  and not see any of them?  I mean, didn’t almost everyone who knew we were coming this way ask, “Oh, are you going to see the castles?”

So today was the day.  The journey to see all three of them plus Oberammergau in a single day is beyond the capabilities of public transportation, so I began the day at the local Avis being nicely but firmly informed that I was very lucky they had a car in stock for me, and witnessing the most careful, thorough pre-rental vehicle inspection I’ve ever witnessed in the five countries in which I’ve rented.

But as has been the case in all of those countries, I drove away realizing that once again, I hadn’t bothered to glance at the “road signs” section of the guidebook.

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So this was the route.  Doubled, because once we got down to Neuschwanstein, we had to return the same way.  There’s another route between that area and Garmisch, but it requires you to go through Austria.  Germany doesn’t require an IDP (International Driving Permit – easy to get at AAA, but I didn’t bother this time), but Austria does…so I had to stay away from Austria lest there be an International Incident.

First stop, barely 30 minutes from Garmisch, was the Ettal Monastery – an enormous Benedictine structure that now houses a boys’ high school.  Our first taste of some hard core Bavarian Baroque.

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I particularly liked the images on the penitents’ sides of the confessionals, clearly meant to provoke thought and scrape consciences.  Now that I think about it…I wonder if there were also images in the confessors’ sections….

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Makes you think…..

The mist was rapidly thickening.

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Not far from Ettal, we took the turn to Linderhof, which was Ludwig’s favorite castle and the one in which he spent the most time.  We took a tour, which was an excellent decision – the lovely older German guide shifted easily between German and English – plus we all had folders with details about the rooms written in our own language.  No photos inside, of course, but Ludwig’s obsession with the Bourbons comes through loud and clear in this (very) mini-Versailles.  No portraits of Ludwig or his family, but every room, in addition to crazy layers of gilted woodwork, thick, luxurious 3-d embroidery and porcelain..everything…featured portraits of Bourbons or images of Versailles.

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If we’d gone in the summer, we’d have seen the place in serious action, with fountains going and so on, but this is November, so….

….to Oberammergau, where…we hardly spent any time aside from lunch.  It was fairly dead. Yes, there were shops open, but most weren’t and neither the Passion Play museum nor one of the major woodcarving exhibits were open, and the one shop we went into had such crazy prices (30 E for a little owl I have no doubt took about 15 minutes to carve), I lost interest.

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This was outside one of the shops, evoking, I imagine, the days when Oberammergau folk crossed Europe, selling their town’s work.

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So it was on to Wieskirche.  

Plopped out in the middle of nowhere, and by the time we arrived, enshrouded in fog – to the extent that we didn’t even see it until we’d walked right up to it – it’s a pilgrimage church built around a statue of the scourged Christ that purportedly wept tears.  Another stunning example of Bavarian Baroque.

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By that time it was three, and the mist/fog was obviously heavy.  Should we even bother with the other castles?  I was torn, the rest of the crew was good either way, so I thought, well, what else do we have to do?  So we ventured forth.

By the time we arrived, the last tour tickets had been sold, but we decided to hike up the hill anyway just to see what we could see.

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You know? It was worth it.  No, it wasn’t that perfect Neuschwanstein image we all know and which supposedly inspired Walt Disney, but there was something about it, anyway.  There was something about the rather strenuous hike up the hill which we took while everyone else – mostly Asian tourists – were streaming down. And there was something about seeing what little we could make out – we could stll comprehend its massiveness, perched up there on the mountain, and having heard all about the sad, delusional king earlier in the day, we could connect some more dots and ponder once again the selfish folly that we humans are subject to..no matter who we are…building castles in the air…..why?

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The highest point in Germany….
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When I got up and looked out the window, the mountains looked to be encased in mist, so I thought it would be a bad day for visibility. I was puzzled, however, by the fact that the webcams at the top of the mountain showed good visibility.  I decided to believe my eyes, so up we went…and what I’d seen in the morning became obvious.

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Don’t forget to show that the dog was here, too.
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A cross at the summit, as there often (if not always) is.

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You know what’s nice about when your kids head out and start exploring the world?

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You can go visit them.

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In this age of 24-7, can’t escape information-mongering, it is amazing (or perhaps not) that actually reporting continues to suck.

Take this whole Synod on the Family thing.

Obviously, there is a lot of discussion regarding the Synod, much of that discussion being driven by Cardinal Kasper of Germany, who is just going on and on and on about compassion and mercy and such.

Plenty of people are talking about all of that.  What hardly anyone is doing, however is even trying to move beyond the ideological narratives, and raising questions about  the German church tax.

For that is really the most pressing issue facing the German Catholic Church.  And I really wonder why any of our highly-praised religion journalists are completely ignoring this issue and don’t even seem interested in connecting the dots or even asking Cardinal Kasper directly about how the Catholic Church in Germany understands and practices issues related to Church membership and the sacraments. And taxes.

Here’s the deal. I’m going to use the explanation of the German Church Tax that I found on a Mormon blog.  It’s clear and helpful:

…religious organizations in Germany can qualify to be treated as public law corporations. Public law corporation status provides a number of benefits, including exemption from income, inheritance, and gift taxes, the right to employ clergy as civil servants in various public facilities, and exemption from bankruptcy laws. In addition, public law corporations can impose the Church Tax on their members.

Churches actually get to draft their own tax ordinances (though the ordinances must be approved by the state). Generally, state statutes provide forms that these Church Taxes can take, including income, wealth, and property taxes. Though churches are technically responsible for collecting the tax themselves, they can—and usually do—enlist the state’s help. The government collects the tax through its wage withholding, then, after keeping a service fee, remits the rest of the Church Tax to the relevant church. When the Church Tax is imposed on a member’s income, it’s levied as 8 to 9 percent of her federal income tax liability, which amounts to between 3 and 4 percent of her income.

Recent changes have raised awareness of the tax and the exodus from formal church affiliation has been growing:

…in 2012, a German court held that churches could bar people who stopped paying the tax (by civilly withdrawing from the church) from participating in church activities, including becoming godparents and joining church-run clubs.

Second, church members will no longer be able to avoid paying the Church Tax on their capital gains. While technically it has always been imposed on capital gains, in the past, banks waited for customers to volunteer their religious affiliation. Under new rules, banks are required to report their customers’ affiliation, rather than wait. That is, while the underlying law hasn’t changed, the enforcement mechanism has just improved.

From the TaxProf Blog, quoting from a WSJ article:

German church members must pay an additional 8% to 9% of their gross annual income tax and capital gains tax bills to the church. That is typically steeper than in many other parts of Europe. A registered believer, for instance, paying a 30% income tax rate, or €30,000, on an income of €100,000, would pay another €2,400 to €2,700 in church tax. …

While the church tax had officially always been due on capital gains, it had never been properly enforced. Under the new rules, which the churches lobbied for, banks will be required to report their customers’ religious affiliations, rather than wait for customers to volunteer the information. “We’re not doing it for the additional revenue,” said Thomas Begrich, finance chief for the Protestant Churches of Germany, or EKD, defending the change. “The wealthy need to pay their fair share.”

The WSJ article is here.  I’m not sure if it’s behind a firewall or not for everyone, so I provide the link to the TaxProf blog as well.

So far this year, the number of Germans leaving the country’s Protestant and Catholic churches has reached its highest level in 20 years, twice last year’s level—a surge many clergy and finance experts blame on the changes in how the tax is levied.

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More from Reuters on the recent changes:

German tax authorities collect an 8 or 9 percent premium on churchgoers’ annual tax bills and channel it to the faiths to pay clergy salaries, charity services and other expenses. Members must officially leave the church to avoid paying this.

Under a simplified procedure starting next year, banks will withhold that premium from church members earning more than 801 euros ($1,055) in capital gains annually and pass it on to tax authorities for distribution to the churches.

Letters from banks announcing the new procedure this summer and asking clients for their religious affiliation — so they can earmark funds to the right churches — have worried many members. Churches have scrambled to explain the changes.

“Nobody has to get angry and leave the church,” the Lutheran diocese of Braunschweig pleads on its website.

“I’m surprised because this isn’t a tax rise but just a new procedure,” Rev. Karl Juesten, the Catholic liaison official with parliament in Berlin, told the magazine Christ & Welt this week. “We should have become active earlier.”

Discussing the large sums involved is difficult for the churches, maybe more so now for Catholics because Pope Francis says he wants “a poor church for the poor” and makes a point of living in a simple apartment and riding in ordinary cars.

EMPTYING PEWS

National statistics are not yet available, but individual cases reported in recent weeks illustrate the problem.

For example, both the Lutheran diocese in Berlin and Stuttgart’s Catholic diocese reported a 50 percent jump in departures in the first half of 2014. That means about as many quit in only six months as had left in a full year before.

Some clergy have accused financial advisers of telling clients to quit their churches if they don’t want to pay up, a step that would have them barred from receiving the sacraments, being married in church or having a religious burial.

The banks replied with prompt and sharp denials.

“The churches are trying to get off easy. They should ask themselves why such a personal decision as belonging to a church is reduced to the issue of capital gains tax,” said Thomas Lange of the local banking association in Duesseldorf.

From a column at the Catholic Thing:

Some European journals are also calling for a reconsideration of the close financial link between Church and State in Germany. The Church draws a hefty income from this so-called church tax, and the clergy are paid rather large salaries by the state. Most Americans would be a bit shocked to learn that German bishops make between €8000 ($10,965) and €11,500 ($15,763) a month, depending upon their seniority. That comes to between $131,000 and $189,000 a year. Priests make less – but still far more than their American brother priests.

Der Spiegel is certainly not objective, but when you sort through the biases, you can get a sense of the financial..er…complexity of the Catholic Church in Germany.  The “Bishop of Bling” was only the most excessive of an excessive, wealthy bunch.

All right, then, you get the picture.  The German Catholic Church is a big business (the country’s second-largest employer) and it’s income is considerable.  There are various sources for that income, but a huge part of it is the church tax.  Fewer registered members?  Less income.

That’s one thing But here’s the other thing to keep in mind as you hear Cardinal Kasper talk. And talk and talk.

(Well, first you should be wondering why the head of a national church that is dying should have this constantly-turned on microphone on this issue.  Why are we even listening to him?  Aren’t we supposed to be listening to the Church from places where it is actually alive and growing? What happened to We’re-not-a-Western-European-Church-We’re-a-Global-Church?)

Okay, back to Germany.  Here’s how the German bishops responded to the growing exodus.  Back in 2012, they issued a decree.

This decree declared that if you’re Catholic, and you un-register with the German government and don’t pay the church tax…you’re basically excommunicated.  From, you know, the Eucharistic Table of the Lord.  You can’t be buried out of the Church unless you’ve repented. Heck, you can’t even chair the social committee:

From CNS:

“Conscious dissociation from the church by public act is a grave offense against the church community,” the decree said.

“Whoever declares their withdrawal for whatever reason before the responsible civil authority always violates their duty to preserve a link with the church, as well as their duty to make a financial contribution so the church can fulfill its tasks.”

The document added that departing Catholics could no longer receive the sacraments of penance, holy Communion, confirmation or anointing of the sick, other than when facing death, or exercise any church function, including belonging to parish councils or acting as godparents.

Marriages would granted only by a bishop’s consent and unrepentant Catholics would be denied church funerals, the decree said.

So yes, the de-registration is being interpreted as a formal defection from the Church.  Of course then, one does not receive the sacraments if one has taken this step.  But in the German context, there might be other reasons a Catholic would de-register which might have to do with, say, distrust of the national Church’s structure and unwillingness to support it, from either a liberal or conservative perspective.

Update:    I am fuzzy on whether the 2012 decree is actually in force. The German bishops at the time declared it was approved by the Vatican, which had, a few years previously declared that the practice was not valid.  Rome had declared in 2006, but this digging-in-the-heels German statement was in 2012. A discussion of it here.

Does all of this invalidate anyone’s statements or perspective?  Of course not.  But it is all very interesting, and seems to me very important context.

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