What I Learned From Bavaria About Being an Artist
”I eventually found my way to the lake and learned the tricks of the forest.” | All photos: Miriam Calleja

What I Learned From Bavaria About Being an Artist

‘And then the pandemic happened’ is a phrase we’ve come to expect in personal essays lately. However, I’m here to tell you about how the year 2020 brought a surprising and unexpected experience that took me out of the small island I’d been living on for all of my life. You see, sometimes life happens slowly, then all at once.

Earlier, around 2018, I’d been invited to attend a poetry festival in Munich and consequently won a scholarship and grant for an artist residency in Feldafing, Bavaria. When 2020 rolled around, and my residency date got closer, the world was effectively shutting down. You can imagine my surprise when I received an email saying that the invitation to Villa Waldberta was still open. It was, after all, an ideal place to isolate in. 

The residency would allow me to create in a new space, while (temporarily) not worrying about where the money would come from. It sounds ideal when I say it like that. And in fact, it was. However, something that’s not a new feeling for artists, especially female artists, is the imposter syndrome that comes along with this. 

Imposter syndrome whispers that there must have been some mistake. Not only are you unqualified (underqualified? completely fake?) to be here, but soon THEY will find out. The whole world, or at least those few people who know you and have been playing along with this farce, will know that you’ve been caught. You will need to go back to doing something that obliterates your will to live. There will be no joy in your life anymore, and you will definitely be embarrassed about it until you die.

After a couple of days of elation, of wonderment and awe at my surroundings and the feeling of the possibility of time and space stretching ahead of me, I felt myself deflating. With the way things had happened, I hadn’t dared make a concrete plan for my time there, thinking I’d get ahead of my inevitable disappointment when the residency got COVID-cancelled.

So when it didn’t, and I found myself with a gorgeous surreal villa to my left, Lake Starnberg ahead of me behind a curtain of lush late-summer forest, and snow-capped mountains to my right, I was frozen with fear. Who else was in on this ruse? When would they tell me it was one big joke?

When there was nothing to do but get on with it, I did. The villa was eerily quiet and museum-like… and apparently filled with benevolent ghosts. The town of Feldafing moved at a slow pace. With one pharmacy, one bakery, one post office, a couple of restaurants with the same menu and so on, it felt like many decisions had already been made for me. A train could take me into the next town, or all the way to Munich. A 20-minute hilly walk would take me to the supermarket, where I equipped myself with all I could carry to make my meals for one. 

My walks got longer than they needed to be because I wandered, I stopped to take in beauty and newness, and changing nature. I eventually found my way to the lake and learned the tricks of the forest. You had to walk through the third bush just across the highway, and walk straight through the golf course (they will get cross with you on occasion for being in the wrong place at the wrong time; do it anyway) and finally you’d get to the water. 

And then I stopped to listen. And my surroundings spoke. Bavaria pulled me earthwards, until I not only began to feel its heartbeat but also its no-nonsense practicality. Do what you’re made to do, it seemed to say.

I embraced the rhythms of the mountains and succumbed to their influence. I was down with a headache, with all the artists in the house, when the Foehn arrived — a dry, warm, downslope mountain wind. I hung my underwear on a tree branch to enjoy a refreshing spontaneous swim in the lake. 

nature in Bavaria

I basked in beauty until I was moved to tears. I noted the movements of artists who gave their whole being to doing what they were made to do. They keep inspiring me to embody my poetry to this day. Together, we created Luftmeer, a publication of my words and their photography, but more than that we created an experience of synchronicity, of being part of the planet.

Has beauty always been this strong around you? Has the air always felt so crisp? Were there always all these connections but you just didn’t see? When you live in a house with artists, art is everywhere. Nature arranges itself in such a way that you can see it. Birds form patterns just for your eyes, and leaves fall off trees in the wind just so. A line traverses, connects, sets ideas alight.
(Luftmeer, 2021, together with Anne Buscher and Sanne Vaassen)

The changes in me were less of a transformation and more of a homecoming. As a poet, and a writer, what did I do? I observed, I noticed, and I lingered with my focus to make a connection. I could write a book about what poetry is and what a poet does, but really that is what I’d be saying in essence. 

On my second day there, I found a handful of pebbles that someone had lined up so that their pattern formed a full line. It spoke to me about the significance of art and how artists lived with this sense of purpose that simultaneously plagues and blesses them. 

Slowly I shed my self-imposed constraints. I look at my selfies from those days and I see wildness creep into my eyes. I became in tune with the Villa, with its waking (earlier than I was used to) and with its changing light. I looked forward to golden hour, when the expansive warped glass of my room created a cabaret of ideas on the walls until the sun set and I stared into the night, becoming comfortable with its stillness, its animal howls. 

And with these patterns and routines, I began to understand and get in tune with something deep and unsayable. With something almost unwritable.

Miriam Calleja

Traveller

Miriam Calleja is a prize-winning Maltese bilingual wordsmith and poet. She has three poetry collections: Pomegranate Heart, Inside, and Stranger Intimacy, and a collaboration titled Luftmeer. Her work appears in Sentinel Quarterly, Indigo Dreams Publishing, and The Gloucestershire Poetry Society, and is forthcoming in Modern Poetry in Translation. She hosts creative writing workshops and enjoys writing about health, food, and travel. Miriam believes that storytelling encourages unity, connection, and understanding. She has great faith in collaboration as a key to communication.

Time to Read:  5 Minutes
Traveller: Miriam Calleja
28 April 2023
Category:
Travellers' Tales - In this Moment

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