Monday, July 18, 2011

Upgegradet worden

The German film, Shoppen, (2006) focuses on the phenomenon of speed dating. It's a masterwork of economy, telling the story of eighteen single men and women in a series of short scenes that leave big gaps in the viewer's information, but provide just enough key details to make us believe we know a lot more. It's a quality I admire in film and one I try to apply in my own paintings. The characters in Shoppen are all living in München, all are single, and all are eager to find a life partner, or at least a temporary liaison. The film addresses a problem that faces many in the US as well as Europe: as conventions and traditions are examined and discarded, what structure can take their place? In an earlier generation, Germans married earlier. Woman didn't enter the workforce as regularly as today, and members of the opposite sex could meet in such thoroughly outmoded institutions as church social groups. As far as I can see, religion still plays a very important role in Germany, but it's a political one. Few Germans would be so foolish as to spend any time worrying about a spiritual need that could be met in a church. That's what Art and Kultur are there for.

One of the characters we meet in Shoppen is Frank. He's a self-described "gatherer," as opposed to, hunter-type, leading what is apparently, an amazingly dull life. He stumbles into the speed dating experience almost by accident and in his first interview responds to the question "What's been the most wonderful surprise in your life?" by saying that he was once "upgegradet worden" on a return flight from London*. How sad," I thought as I watched the film for the first time, "that one has no more significant experience than that to share with a potential life partner." And then it happened to me.

On my recent return from Europe, I too was upgraded, and now I can understand Frank's response. Instead of being jammed into a tiny space and forced to make a choice between either a peanut OR a pretzel, I lounged in pampered luxury while my sommelier worked out which wine I would drink with my smoked almonds. My seat reclined to form a rudimentary bed and I was presented with a teeny tiny tooth brush and correspondingly tiny tube of paste. With my main meal I was given over 8 pieces of cutlery, three of them knives. This from an airline that less than two hours previously confiscated my nail clippers, presumably worried that I would threaten the cabin crew with a really aggressive pedicure. Just look at these pictures:

Chose a knife. Any knife.

Crisp radicchio and an excellent oil and balsamic vinegar dressing, but which white should I drink to complement it?

The strawberries were a little under-ripe. I sent them back.

Another big plus in first class: movies are free. Even the recent stuff you have to pay for in coach. I watched a great film about an alien invasion of earth. Directors like Fellini, Truffaut and Scorsese, have techniques for insuring that plot is advanced and momentum is maintained in their films, but in my alien invasion film, the director just made sure that some marine said, "Go! gogogogogo!" every 3-4 minutes. This kind of action film also benefits if a helicopter blows up from time to time, and I believe the director of this one managed to break a record for rotary-wing aircraft destroyed. As you may imagine, dialog was minimal, but they still managed to work in some hilarious redundancies like "evacuate you out." And every once in a while, some marine would shout out "Let's get to that police station and save the civilians," just in case a viewer forgot what was going on. If you're thinking I'm being facetious in my praise of this film, you're mistaken. There's kind of a ban on alien invasion films at my house and I crave this kind of cathartic release. This movie was so good, I watched it a second time in Italian: "Andiamo! andiamoandiamoandiamo" No real need for subtitles, but you might need them for the Shoppen trailer below.

*Ich bin ma' upgegradet worden von dem Rückflug von London...  da bin ich in den Business Klasse gerutscht, es war nicht übel und echt überraschend.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Der Man in Schwarz

US American culture is readily embraced by Germans. But even in a market that's as receptive to American culture as Germany is, some US artists seem to be more readily accepted than others. In literature for example, John Irving is a big favorite here, as is Philip Roth. Cormac McCarthy, on the other hand, or Michael Chabon don't seem to appear in bookstores here anywhere near as often.

One classic American musician who is incredibly popular in Germany is Johnny Cash. Here in Deutschland, Mr. Cash's music appeals to people in a way that isn't clouded by the artificial categories that are so important to marketing in the States. Cash's music crosses all boundaries in Germany, appealing as easily to a burnt out old hippie-type as to a twenty-something punk. I hear Johnny playing as background music in department stores and on the radio and his CD's stand in the bookcases of almost every home I visit here.

My own radio interests here don't include Johnny Cash. I admire him and his music, but I don't travel to Germany to spend my time listening to American popular music. In Essen the radio dial is dominated by the WDR stations, with WDR Eins focussing on current popular music and WDR 5 offering a broad range of news and cultural offerings. I doubt if many of my acquaintances here listen to WDR5 very often: it has a reputation of being just a little spießig. But I enjoy the variety and novelty of the station. There's just nothing like it in the US.

I often wonder how Germany can offer this kind of entertainment: what's the business model, and how do they pay their bills? The answer is, of course, that Germany is a socialist economy. Until recently, the government ran all radio and television. If you own a radio, you pay an annual tax on it, and those taxes go to supporting public programing, like WDR5. The catch is, WDR has to serve a wide audience to maintain the government support they depend on and their constituents include organizations like the Catholic and Evangelical churches (which, incidentally, are also state-run institutions here.) And that's why WDR5 can sometimes be just a little stodgy. Every morning at 6:05, I listen to a piece produced by a prominent religious figure in the region and they're rarely very dynamic. The speakers are all so damned earnest, so unctuous, so anxious to please. They talk slowly,  and their arguments are formatted in a way that reminds me of the ads the white-haired guy on Wild Kingdom used to do:

The hammerhead tortoise has a shell to protect him from wild predators and you need protection too....

But this morning's piece, by Diplom Theologe Markus Potthoff from Essen was really quite entertaining and he made his point with a quote he attributed to Johnny Cash: 

Das Christentum ist nichts für Weicheier

Loosely translated, it means something like, Christianity is not for sissies. It's entertaining for me because it uses some of the great vocabulary German has to describe sissies: Weicheier, Shattenparker, Warmduscher... And ironic too, because, no matter what they do to escape it, all of these religious commentators wind up sounding like a bunch of Weicheier. But today at least, I listened eagerly to the Kirche in WDR5 address, and I'll continue to be a faithful listener, even following the station on-line when I'm back in the States. Tomorrow at 6:05 there will be another preacher greeting me from the electronic pulpit, but at noon I'll be listening to a Hörspiel about a fictional dominatrix who runs a shop in the government quarter of Berlin, beating up on Muttersöhnchen for fun and profit. Public radio in Deutschland makes for strange bedfellows and reminds me every day that I'm not in Kansas anymore.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Cobblestones are extremely practical. In Germany there are lots of words to describe them and the surface they make. In general, the surface is called Pflaster, from Latin, plastrum. It refers to any of a number of different stone surfaces that cover roads, sidewalks or plazas. I'm only familar with the one word in English, but it really isn't accurate for most of what I see in Germany. A cobble is rounded at the edges, usually from rolling around in a river bed for a couple of hundred thousand years. Most of the stones I see used in Germany have relatively sharp edges, and when they're rounded, it's usually from the traffic that rolls over them.

Many times I've watched as a new electric line or water pipe was laid under a Pflaster sidewalk in Germany and marveled at how simple it is. The stones are removed to uncover a 10 - 20 meter stretch and then, as the pipe is laid, the earth is filled back in and the stones are replaced. The stone surface is porous and flexible. Unlike the concrete sidewalks common in the States, as trees grow, the layer of stones stretches naturally to accomodate the the root ball. In the town I live in, the city forester has another solution: cut down the trees.

There's a down side to Pflaster too. The individual stones make wonderful ammunition for the many demos that take place in Europe. I watched a movie just last night that dealt with the years of student protests in Germany and it made me wonder why the Pflaster tradition has lasted so long here, while in American asphalt and concrete are king. The movie was Neue Vahr Süd, the latest in a series of books (and movies made from those books) from Sven Regener. Herr Regener is one of the driving forces behind a German alternative rock band called Element of Crime and he's written some surprisingly successful books. The books have appeared in reverse chronological order, (or at least, I read them in that order) beginning with Herr Lehman, which reaches it's climax with the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was translated into English by John Brownjohn under the title Berlin Blues. The book I read most recently is, Neue Vahr Süd, which climaxes with a demonstration at Weserstadion, where stones are thrown and some find their mark.

I'm not sure why I enjoy these books/films so much. Frank Lehman, the main character, doesn't do much. Mostly he moves though life like a modern-day German Hamlet, allowing things to happen to him. But it's also true that he can't keep his mouth shut in a difficult situation, where discretion really would have been the better part of valor. He's an interesting Mischung of conflicting characteristics like many of us, and I find that I'm completely sympathetic to his situations. I also find it fascinating to revisit historical events that I'm just barely familiar with from another point of view. I read about the Red Brigade and student unrest in the Norwalk Hour when I was a paperboy, and I experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall mostly on NPR. Now, through Sven Regener's books I'm experiencing them both from a completely different point view. I guess that's what this "Art" thing is all about.

And today is the 70th anniversary of the opening of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union. Somehow that seems like just another link in the chain. Sven Regener's books deal very much with German history, but his character, Frank, was born far too late to have any direct experiences with the Second World War. In the early 1960's, when Frank Lehman was born in Bremen, the last of the German soldiers held by the Soviet Union had already been released. Some prisoners were held for more than ten years after the war's end. And the Soviet troops held as prisoners of war in Germany had all either died of hunger in captivity, or been shipped back to Russia, where Stalin gave them all a long furlough in Siberia. All in all, it makes this question of concrete or Pflaster seem pretty insignificant.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


There are many news stories that cross the Atlantic from east to west. Germans know all about congressman Weiner and the "nutiny" that occurred in a prominent Republican candidate's campaign staff. But by contrast, how many Americans are aware of the resignation of Germany's Verteidigungsminister? It was a huge story with serious implications for Germany's current government, but I saw very little about it in the US press. And how about Horst Köhler? The president of Germany resigned almost exactly a year ago, but it went almost unnoticed in the US.

Americans have the reputation of being uninformed about the world, but in some ways, it's not really our fault. Our media just doesn't cover the more subtle world events. Now, if a starlet should wear a particularly stupid dress to a Hollywood event, or stumble momentarily while approaching the podium, Yahoo will crow over her misfortune until every 2nd grader is buzzing about it on the playgrounds of Topeka or Des Moines. But the resignation of the president of the world's 4th largest economy? Whatevah!

I did read several stories about the current E. coli outbreak in Europe and I'm wondering why Americans were interested. In some way, I think this story about random and sudden death must awaken the same kind of Schadenfreude as a badly dressed ingenue. Any German will tell you, Schadenfreude ist das beste Freude, but it doesn't do anything for America's image abroad.

Horst Köhler is on the front page of this week's Zeit with an exclusive interview about his decision to resign in May of last year. I read the story with great interest, but the comments to the online version of the story were even more interesting. Köhler was an immensely popular figure, and like his predecessors, was elected almost by acclamation. His resignation shocked most Germans, and while he didn't give a reason for his decision at the time, most people assumed that he resigned in the face of strong criticism of a casual remark he made while meeting with German troops in Afghanistan. The story in Die Zeit doesn't really have any surprises: it merely confirms what everyone already thought. But the in a world where online comments are typically relegated to stuff like: "Sez who?" or "You and what army?" the comments on Köhler were remarkably on target. Readers registered their feelings of betrayal and asked why Köhler accepted the position if he wasn't up to the stress. I felt that the juxtaposition of Köhler's complaints ("The attacks were outrageous!") and the trumanesque heat and kitchen comments online did nothing to rehabilitate him. I still feel that Köhler is an intelligent man, probably a genuinely "good" man. In fact, he's a guy that reminds me of our own Jimmy Carter. But like Jimmy, he's clearly not build for the dirty game of politics. Arguably the most important quality that we need in our politicians.

Today's papers in Germany were once again featuring a story from across the pond, but this time with a local spin. Dirk Nowitzki, German citizen and member of the Dallas Mavericks was being hailed as a super star, even making the front page of the illustrious Süddeutsche Zeitung. I know because a young woman stopped me in the Bahnhof today to try to sell me a subscription to the Südeutsche. Her big selling point was that it's a "very serious newspaper". With a front page story on American basketball? She had a hard time explaining that. Dirk is a big story here, but if he wants to make it big in the States, he'll need to do something really significant, like get a bad haircut. And I guess I'll subscribe to the Süddeutsche Zeitung when they inaugurate a column devoted to news of Brangelina.

Monday, June 6, 2011


Back in May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made some awkward remarks about her southern neighbors and their attitude toward work. Her comments are still reverberating three weeks later as the problems in the European Union continue to grow. In the speech she made to some party loyalists, she suggested that the EU should equalize the legal holidays in all its member states, broadly hinting that the southern European “domani” attitude toward work was perhaps responsible for the economic breakdown in Greece and Portugal. Speaking as a US Amerikaner, who was driven to the brink of starvation by the frequency and frivolousness of Germany's holidays back in the bad old days when grocery stores were only open until 1 pm on Saturdays, Merkel’s remarks struck me as hilarious. Critics across southern Europe quickly pointed out that in fact, on average, Spaniards and Portuguese work longer hours than Germans and have an older effective retirement age. Basta!

I can understand Merkel's frustration with Greece and Portugal because of my own frustration with the Germans. I often travel to Germany in the spring, and my plans are always being derailed by the string of holidays that loom over late May and early June: Christihimmelfahrt, Pfingsten, Buß- und Bettag, and my personal favorite, Fronleichnamsfest, which translates into something like, Happy Cadaver Celebration. Well, I’m exaggerating a little, and Buß- und Bettag is actually in autumn, but it’s my blog. I was curious enough about this issue to search for more information today on the subject and came across an account of Merkel’s speech on this fascinating blog/website: Holidays to Abu Dhabi. Here’s a quote attributed to Merkel from the article:

“(People) in countries similar to Greece, Spain and Portugal should not retire progressing than in Germany. We should all make the same efforts, this is important,” she told a celebration eventuality in Meschede, horse opera Germany.

In the words of the immortal Hank the Cowdog, “Huh?” I read further in the article and it’s all nonsense like that. With unemployment in Europe so high, you’ve got to ask yourself why the website doesn’t just hire themselves a writer moderately familiar with the English language. I’m particularly struck by the last phrase: in Meschede, horse opera Germany. Merschede is no garden spot, but to me it seems disrespectful to refer to it as a "horse opera".  I’ve always felt that was a decidedly pejorative term.

So maybe it’s not the love of holidays that’s doing in the Euro Zone, it might be badly written blogs, with little or no proofreading. Southern Europeans are justly outraged about Chancellor Merkel’s inaccurate portrayal of them as lazy layabouts, but Germans in North Rhine/Westphalia’s Sauerland have just as much right to indignation under the circumstances. And so it goes, charge and counter charge, in an escalating spiral of tension that pushes Europeans to the breaking point. Before this crisis is over, they’re all going to need a little time off.

Southern Europeans, hard at work