Monday, December 29, 2008

Kleidung cle√er kaufen

A weekly newspaper is a treasure trove of potential content for my blog. Helmut Schmidt is celebrating his 90th birthday. A film of Thomas Mann's novel "The Buddenbrooks" has just premiered at the Litchburg in Essen. The latest from David Sedaris has just come out in translation and is well received in an entertaining review. But I'm drawn to this story: German clothing discounter, Kik, has clothing racks that look like swastikas. It's the kind of story I can really sink my teeth into.

Apparently it all started innocently enough when a father and son team went into the Kik branch in Albersdorf, considerably north of Essen. The 13 year old son was studying National Socialism in school and he remarked to his father as they passed the pants department, "Guck mal Papa, hier sind überall Hakenkreuze!" (Look Dad, there are swastikas all over the place here.) Dad sent a letter to Kik and requested that they remove the swastikas from their stores, only to be told by return mail that the objects in question are not swastikas. They are Winkelständer (angled racks.)

This is one of those simple stories that inadvertently gives us real insight into some very complex concepts. In this case, we get an inside look at current thinking in Germany about the Nazi past and the free, democratic state that Germany has become. These clothing racks are indeed in the shape of a swastika. German law does forbid the representation of the Hakenkreuz. But I also agree with the store manager, who says, "Ach, das sind nur unsere Winkelständer." He goes on to point out the advantages of the Winkelständer: you can fit more stock on them, customers find them convenient and according to the manager, "They look so nice when they're all in row." Does society really have anything to fear from such a fine and useful object?

I visited Bonn's Haus der Geschichte just a few days ago (a fabulous museum dedicated to the history of Germany since WWII that allows objects to tell their own story: I highly recommend it) and viewed a fascinating exhibition about Germany's relationship with its national symbols. The Kik Clothing Rack Affair wasn't part of the show, but it would have fit right in. Within the context of a national history museum, presumably the ban on Nazi symbols is lifted and among the items displayed were individual tart forms with the swastika at their center. Seeing those objects was pivotal for me and I don't think this society would be better if censors were denying us the experience. I find the story about the Winkelständer equally insightful and I believe the dialog over Kik and its clothing racks going on now in the Landeskriminalamt in Kiel is probably a healthy one that will lead to some deeper understanding of what we fear about the Nazi symbols. Probably this particular application of the swastika form is completely harmless, but then again, take a look at the little Logo/Mascot for the Kik store: is that a Hitlergruß he's making? Hmmm... maybe I'll just buy my pants at H&M.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Things are hectic here in the days before Heiliger Abend and Weihnachten. I started this morning in the neighborhood with a haircut and then a search for an appropriate Christmas tree at Edeka. The Florastrasse square was manned with Jehovah's Witnesses handing out Wachtturm! (not many takers) and our standard accordion player. Our accordion player is the best in a city that's got a surfeit and I take some pride in that fact. I'm not sure why.

I spent some time at the Folkwang Museum today too and since they're under construction, they're suffering from a lack of visitors. Their response to the problem is a giant " O P E N " sign that made me mistake the museum for an American supermarket. It's a particularly awkward sign since they leave it up all the time, i.e. when they are, in fact, closed. The sign doesn't detract from an excellent exhibition of modern photography and some appropriately confounding videos.

I also went through the downtown and took some parting shots of the Weihnachtsmarkt. I read an interesting article this morning in Die Zeit about Weihnachtsmärkte in general and learned that they are all the rage in the UK. Apparently, cities there are contracting with German cities to provide them with a complete Weihnachtsmarkt package. In Birmingham, a seriously multicultural city, residents whose parents came from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, etc. are now really into the Gemütlichkeit. The trend sounds great to me, even though chewing on a smoked eel in the cold isn't really my style. I don't mind being in the minority.

I hope the readers of Forschungsjahr and Vitrine will have a happy and healthy holiday season and a great new year. We've got a full schedule here for the holidays and I may even get to taste Lebkuchen. I'll be back with a report in 2009.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Eine Tintenwelt

The central theme in Tintenblut, a book I'm currently listening to on CD, is the yearning to travel to a magical parallel world, despite the difficulties and dangers present there. It's a paradox I can relate to as I experience the winter solstice here in Essen. When I meet people here in Germany, they always ask me where I'm from and what brought me here. They're often surprised to find out that I'm an American who has chosen to live here in the Ruhrgebiet for a year. In fact, they all ask me the same question: "Why?"

It's a question I've been asking myself a lot lately. I left my Wohnung on my way to the studio yesterday at 7:30 am. and faced a cold, wet, dark, foggy world. I leave almost everyday in darkness and come home in darkness. Back in Utah, where I live when I'm not on sabbatical, the sun shines almost every day. There comes a time when you have to ask yourself, "What in fact am I doing here?"

One of the things I've been doing this past week is reading the second in a series of three books by Cornelia Funke that I mentioned above. These books are intended for children or young adults, but I'm an old adult and I'm still finding Tintenblut very compelling. I read the first in the series, Tintenherz, a few years ago and it was slow going. I tend to read at night and that means I fall asleep a lot while I'm reading. The book moves pretty slowly when you're only managing about three pages a night and I never reached critical mass with it.

Now I'm "reading" the second book on CD while I paint and it makes a big difference. I'm enjoying the novel, which, like the other two books in the trilogy is based on a simple, compelling and inventive premise: that a skilled reader can cross the border from our world to the world of the story that he or she reads aloud. I wanted to see if her books are known in the English speaking world and with a little research (meaning that I stumbled around on-line searching Wikipedia and Google) I discovered that not only are the books known, but that Frau Funke was chosen by Time magazine in 2005 as one if the year's 100 most influential people. The only other German named was Cardinal Ratzinger (or Papa Ratzi, as he is known in some circles here in Deutschland,) who was later named as Pope. Not bad company for a children's book author.

I'm curious to know how many readers the Tintenwelt books have found in the English speaking world (where they are know as Inkheart, Inkspell and Inkdeath) and I've decided to use the blog poll feature that Blogger so kindly provides. I know it's sort of gimmicky, but I'm told blog content consumers like their experience to be interactive. We'll see. Check the side bar for the poll and I'll continue with Tintenblut. It's the perfect book for another dark, cold, wet day in the studio. Cornelia Funke is busy working on the screen plays for a series of films based on the books and she'll be experiencing the solstice in sunny southern California. With the success of her novels she presumably has the resources to live wherever she wants. When she meets fellow expatriates strolling the pier in Santa Monica, I doubt if anyone has to ask, "Why?"

Saturday, December 13, 2008


As an artist who's spent most of his adult career teaching on a university campus, I've never before had the luxury of spending so much time in the studio. It's giving me a very different experience of my own work and allowing me to notice patterns in the process that I've never focused on before. As I mentioned in a previous posting, the method I use to begin a painting has a long tradition. Like Rembrandt and his contemporaries, I begin all my paintings with thin layers of paint with very little oil in them. It's a process that offers many advantages. It allows a painter to block out simple shapes quickly and get a sense of how they might relate to one another. It could be compared to the process of outlining a writer might use, and it forces the painter to work from general to particular. There's also a very practical advantage, in that oil paint layers are very stable when the "fattest" layers (the ones with the most oil in them) are on top of the "leanest" layers.

Unlike Rembrandt, my underpaintings don't focus on value, or light/dark contrast, but rather on hue contrast. I don't give any thought to value as I begin a painting, but instead try to pick an underpainting color that will be complementary (in the color theory sense, meaning "opposite") to the color I expect will go on top later. That much I've always been aware of, but my increased time in the studio has shown me that my preference for an emphasis on hue early on in the paintings tends to encourage a relationship between hue and value that is parallel to a chord progression and melody in music. I set the pattern of hue relationships early on and they are like the chords. Value contrast comes later in my work and functions like the melody.

This relationship is reversed in the work of many other artists. In fact, I often present students with an assignment in which they are required to use three basic values as a chord progression and fit hues into that structure. It's an interesting process and one that dominated pictorial organization until artists like Monet, Matisse and Andre Derain came along.

I'm photographing my work at various stages in order to document this process. I've got an idea at the back of my mind that I might be able to apply this in my painting classes when I get back to the grind at Utah State. The paintings I'm showing in this posting aren't complete, so I can't show you the results yet, but when they are finished, I'll be posting them on my "gallery" site, VITRINE, as I will do with all the work I'm doing during this sabbatical year.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Comparison of the sociodemographic features of Amer/Germanohand injuries

When I talk with other Americans about our respective experiences in Germany, they often mention things I have little or no experience with. Schloss Neuschwanstein comes up a lot, Oktoberfest... Lederhosen. German Christmas celebration seems to be prominent in the American consciousness too, and all the Teutonic stuff that comes with it: Lebkuchen, real candles on the tree, Spekulatius... I always have to play along in these conversations, even though I wouldn't know a piece of Lebkuchen if I tripped over it. I'm always afraid to bring up the things that really strike me about living in Germany. Hand injuries, for example. I'm sure people are injuring their hands all over the world, but there seems to be some kind of epidemic here in Germany, or at least in Essen. If I hang out in Porscheplatz, I might see three or four bandaged hands in the space of 15 minutes. It's really striking.

I realize this is just anecdotal evidence. I suppose it is possible that I'm only imagining it. But I feel there is a remarkable incidence of bandaged hands here in Essen and I'd love to know why. Is this an urban/suburban thing? Does it have to do with the relative social status of the populations I'm comparing? It's common knowledge, I guess, that bivariate analysis has revealed a marked correlation between an individual's socioeconomic parameters and the site of the accident, but how would that explain my observations?

My sabbatical proposal made no mention of research into the frequency of bodily injuries and it's unlikely my observations will lead to significant funding when I return to to Logan. So I should probably just let this go, but I dream of a study comparing net income of a sample population drawn from the US and Germany (after deduction of tax and social security contributions). These data could be used to construct a summary three-level index of social status (the Winkler index) and might shed some light on what for me is a curious aspect of life here in Essen. Then again, maybe I ought to stick to painting. It's probably just simple repetitive motion overuse inflammation from changing the Lederhosen everyday.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Trespassers W

My previous posting, "Denglisch" registered my displeasure with the tide of English sweeping over the German language. An alert reader pointed out to me that German National Socialists made an effort (largely unsuccessful it would seem) to get rid of words in German that stemmed from "unGerman" sources. According to some sources (this one, for example) the Nazis embraced Krummapfel as a substitute for the foreign Banane (banana) and the incredibly absurd, Gesichtserker for Nase (nose.) Does this make me (ugh!) a "speech nazi?"

The Speech Nazis, literal and figurative, want to preserve purity in language. I want to preserve diversity. I fear the monoculture that is being imposed on the world by the unprecedented dominance of the English speaking media and I lament the loss of variety it brings with it. Eisenhower warned us about the military/industrial complex. I'm just as worried about the American entertainment/cultural complex.

When I was eight years old, I spent a lot of my free time copying sections of Winnie the Pooh into a notebook so I could learn them by heart. I still count this book among the finest written. It's quirky and inventive. The writing is self-referential and Milne plays with language in the text in a way that would make it a translator's nightmare†. But there is an excellent translation of A. A. Milne's work into German, made by Harry Rowohlt. Herr Rowohlt preserves the genius of Milne's work in his translation and breathes new life into Pu und Ferkel when he reads aloud. By contrast, when media giant Disney made a "translation" of A. A. Milne's work, they turned it into a sappy mess. It's what happens when something original and particular is converted for a medium that seeks to reach the broadest possible audience. It is reduced to Pablum. Easily digested, even if it provides minimal nourishment. A perfect product for the global Monoculture

Harry Rowohlt is an amazing figure in the German media world. He's an actor, musician, interprets the work of other authors such as Robert Gernhardt and he writes a regular column (Pooh's Corner) for Die Zeit. But what I find most impressive about Rowohlt are his credentials as a translator. He's translated well over eighty books/scripts from English into German, and from whom? Kurt Vonnegut, David Sedaris, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Kenneth Grahame, the Marx Brothers... are we seeing a pattern here? The man has excellent taste. Maybe, you're thinking, he just accepts the assignments given to him by the publisher? Wrong. He owns 49% of Rowohlt Verlag. He writes his own ticket.

As I spread the pages of Die Zeit this morning, I was delighted to find Pooh's Corner in the Feuilleton section. Confusion set in as I came across this sentence at the beginning of the sixth or seventh paragraph:

Morgens in Brenner's (Apostroph nicht von mir) Park Hotel...

The German possessive form is built without an apostrophe, but the trend toward an apostrophe "s," another example of the influence of English, is building and it is at the center of an intense conflict. So what is Rowohlt trying to say with his comment, "apostrophe not mine?" He writes for the cognoscenti and is anything but didactic in his approach, so I'm not sure what to make of this rather dry comment. Assuming he's taken it on the chin in the past for the presence of an apostrophe in the title of his column, maybe he's heading off a flood of protest. Or it could be he's irritated by the presence of the apostrophe in "Brenner's" but feels justified in using it himself, since the column title is in English. In either case, it makes me question my previously rock-solid position on the Americanization of German. Maybe I ought to lighten up. Ultimately, I'm just a guest here and it's not really my business. In the future, I'll try not to stick my Gesichtserker where it doesn't belong.

† The Piglet lived in a very grand house in the middle of a beech-tree, and the beech-tree was in the middle of the forest, and the Piglet lived in the middle of the house. Next to his house was a piece of broken board which had: "TRESPASSERS W" on it. When Christopher Robin asked the Piglet what it meant, he said it was his grandfather's name, and had been in the family for a long time. Christopher Robin said you couldn't be called Trespassers W, and Piglet said yes, you could, because his grandfather was, and it was short for Trespassers Will, which was short for Trespassers William. And his grandfather had had two names in case he lost one—Trespassers after an uncle, and William after Trespassers.

"I've got two names," said Christopher Robin carelessly.

"Well, there you are, that proves it," said Piglet.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


Since beginning my sabbatical, I've completed a lot of new work, some of it featured here in the pages of FORSCHUNGSJAHR. I haven't included reproductions of all the new work, because I feel I'd like to include text with most of my postings. There's a paradox here: if I spend time on writing, I have less time for painting and therefore have less new work to post here. I've decided the solution is a second blog where I can post only images with minimal text. If you've been following FORSCHUNGSJAHR, I hope you'll continue, but you may enjoy visiting my new site to see what I've been doing in the studio since July of 2008.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Schallern mit Thore

I spent another day walking with my Kumpel, Thore, on Friday. We snapped some pictures of us together in a park along the Ruhr. It took a while for us to get the range right, but we finally got something for the blog.

As we walked, Thore was in danger of falling asleep, so we sang together and I taught him some America folk songs. Oh! Susannah, John Henry, The Greenland Fisheries, Joe Hill...Most of the songs were from an old Pete Seeger album I listened to a lot when I was in high school. One song I really enjoy from the album is Go Down, Old Hannah, which I also had a recording of on a Lightin' Hopkins album. It's a real classic. It's a statement/response work song, sung originally by slaves, and then later by chain gangs. I tried it with Thore, who was supposed to sing the "chorus" part so to speak. As leader, I sing, "Well won't you go down old Hannah...won't you rise no more..." and then he is supposed to sing, "Won't you rise no more..." in response. The trouble is, because he's only a baby, when he remembered to sing at all, he just sang, "Na, na, na." If we had been singing "Land of a Thousand Dances" (Wilson Pickett, 1966) Thore would have been a star. As it was, we did better when I did all the singing and he was responsible for listening.

There was no turkey at our house for Thanksgiving. Instead we went out for dinner to a nice place in Essen that features a menu from the Alsace region. I had a fabulous meal of Kurbisspätzle, pan fried with sauerkraut. I know it doesn't sound all that good, but it was one of those dishes that's got a kind of depth and resonance that's still humming in your brain the next morning. We'll probably be back. Dessert was a Flammeküchen with cinnamon and apple: as close as we could come to a pie.

Monday, November 24, 2008


On Monday I took a day off from the studio and went into Essen, checking out a few of my favorite second-hand stores and doing some errands. One of the places I visited was the new Limbecker Platz shopping center, a gargantuan building at the edge of the downtown area. It's been built recently (the second phase is still under construction) and takes the place of the old Karstadt Department store. There's been controversy about the mall and I can't say that I'm much of a supporter. I loved the old Karstadt, which reminded me of a department store from my childhood. But in a country with an annual rainfall of 23 inches, it's hard to argue categorically against indoor retail space.

As I wandered through the mall, I was attracted to a permanent display about the archaeological work that was done at the site when the building was going up. Artifacts were very professionally displayed and the accompanying text put each object in context, but as I got to the end of the glass case, I came to the following notice: Die Fortsetzung der Ausstellung finden Sie im Basement. Häääh? Since when is "basement" a German word?

The truth is, this is just one example of a flood of such words that are inundating standard German. A lot of them are technical, but most are just words someone thinks sound cooler than the German equivalent. In the case of "Basement," they're just plain wrong. The continuation of the exhibition wasn't in a basement, but simply on the lower floor of a building someone invested several million Euros in. I doubt if they'd be happy to hear their bottom floor, slathered in flocking and faux marble, referred to as a basement.

But the stampede to an all-English vocabulary continues in spite of its appropriateness. What was once Kundendienst, becomes first Service, then Support and ultimately just Hotline. Words are brought into the language like cancel, download and flat-rate and within a few months I hear people declining them in speech, as a flight is gecancelt, a file is downgeloadet or flat-rate becomes possessive: Zeitdauer des Flats. Sometimes the change is less radical and a noun like Ergebnis loses its currency and is replaced by a word like Resultat. Resultat comes right out of Latin, but why is it suddenly preferred to Ergebnis? Could the cause be its similarity to the English, "result?"

All languages borrow words from one another and fundamentally, I think it's a good thing. English has raided other languages rapaciously and mostly to the benefit of those of us that speak it. German loan words are well represented, such as, Bildungsroman, Blitzkrieg, Zeitgeist, Weltanschauung, Gestalt... But what I see going on in German is alarming to me, maybe because I've got so much invested. As fast as I can learn German vocabulary, it's being replaced by a language I already speak. It's led to an odd situation, in which I've become the purist, trying to out-deutsch the Deutsch. I turn to my German fellowshopper when the elevator arrives at our floor just as we press the down button and say, "Eine günstige zeitliche Abstimmung!" He replies, "Ja, gutes Timing." I might as well just hang out in the Basement.


I went into the city on Saturday to visit the library and do some shopping. I don't look forward to the long detour that's necessary since work began on the Bahnhof back in May, but there is no better U-Bahn stop for me, so I usually get off at Hauptbahnhof. For several months, that's meant climbing up to street level and trudging the long way around in what today was going to be a wet, wind-blown snow. Imagine my surprise when I found that the wall erected back in the Spring to close off the underground passsage linking the Bahnhof to the Stadtkern was gone.

I'm pleased that Essen will be the cultural capital of Europe in 2010, and I'm looking forward to all the events and activities the designation will bring, but the preparations are making life difficult in the short term. The opening up of the Bahnhof passage is a big improvement and will make the difficulties still to come a lot easier to swallow.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Ruhrgebiet: a gritty Winter Wonderland

The wind was blowing today as snow fell on the Ruhrgebiet, just in time to dust the Weihnachtsmarkt in the city center. I took these photos earlier in the week and they might have benefited from a thin layer of snow, but it will probably be melted before I can get downtown again.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Yesterday, a little before lunchtime, I finally got my visa. It's a big relief and required a lot of hoop jumping to accomplish. I'd complain bitterly about the experience if I didn't know that the process for Germans going in the opposite direction is about ten times worse. I will say that the architect of the Essen Auslanderamt, where I met repeatedly with officials about my stay in Germany, was strongly influenced by Franz Kafka.

It's a process I'm glad I won't have to go through again in a big hurry.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Vast Wasteland: not vast enough yet.

Each week in Die Zeit, former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt gives a short interview about a current news topic. Titled "Auf eine Zigarette mit Helmut Schmidt," the interview is supposed to last about as long as it takes for Herr Schmidt to smoke a cigarette. Last week Herr Schmidt was asked about the rejection of the Deutschen Fernsehpreis for 2008 by Marcel Reich-Ranicki. It was a big scandal back in October and a great story in and of itself, but Schmidt's comments got me thinking about my own love/hate relationship with television, particularly television in Germany.

At home in Utah I have no television reception. People ask me sometimes if I don't feel, that as a responsible citizen I should be watching the news regularly. I've watched network TV news in the US, and I can only laugh heartily at the suggestion that a responsible citizen could stay informed with such a silly medium. I hate commercials and TV's newest gambit, the reality show, puts Gilligan's Island in a positive light.

In Germany on the other hand, I enjoy television viewing. Not really because there is such a great difference in programming: they have a lot of the same Blödsinn (Herr Reich-Ranicki's word) that we have. But there are some good programs too. I often eat dinner in front of the tube, so I can catch the latest installment of Galileo. I enjoy the Tageschau news program and documentaries on the N24 or Phoenix channels. But what I really love is Tatort, a program that has been on television in Germany for 38 years and in May of 2008 aired it's 700th episode.

The concept wouldn't have a snowball's chance in Hell on the small screen in American, but it works well here: each of the regional TV channels which together form the ARD, plus the ORF (the Austrian public network,) produces its own episodes, starring its own Bullen with plenty of local color in the filming. There are exceptions, but most participating regional affiliates use the "cop buddy" format, frequently pairing opposites with one another. Most of my friends have favorite Kommissars and Sunday evening at 20:15, when Tatort is on, is a time held sacred by many Germans, from the most conservative CDU Spießer to the alternative Grün types.

Yes, Tatort has jumped the shark once or twice with it's most popular Kommissars (Shamanski, for example) but all in all, the quality of the writing is very good. Only about thirty episodes are produced annually, so no one Kommissar can get much exposure, always leaving the loyal viewer wanting more. Thanks to syndication, you can watch a Tatort almost any day of the week now and I jump around the dial most evenings to see if one of my favorite Kommissars might be on. And because scripts are often based on current topics and events, watching Tatort episodes sequentially from 1970 to present would make an excellent Modern German History course.

But I think everyone would agree, the finest thing about Tatort is its opening sequence: unchanged in 38 years. It's so bescheuert, it's fabulous. Only the music for the CBC radio show, As It Happens, even comes close. The fact is, Tatort makes me a little jealous. For all of the great programing that has come out of American television, we don't have anything to rival it. In a perfect world, I dream of an American cop series that would feature Kojak, Columbo, Jim Rockford, Steve McGarrett and a few carefully selected others on alternating weeks: unschlagbar. But the world isn't perfect, and as consolation, at least we have Tatort.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Progress in the studio

After waking to rain hammering on the windows at 6:30 this morning, I wasn't expecting much from the day. By 10 the sun was out with a vengeance. It's best not to jump to any conclusions with the Ruhrgebiet climate.

Friday, November 7, 2008

¡Hola Paco! ¿Qué tal, Como estas?

Henning Sussebach from Die Zeit contributed this week's offering in the feature, The Album that Changed my Life. He selected Herbert Grönemeyer's 4630 Bochum. Bochum is a city just to the east of Essen with a similar backstory and Grönemeyer is one of a relatively few pop musicians in Germany that perform in their native language. If we discount the Schlager catagory of singers. And we certainly do.

My first experience with Grönemeyer was in fact a song from the Platte in question. The song was Männer, and it was played for me in a Textwiedergabe exercise during my six week crash course in German at the Universität Regensburg in the summer of 1994. At this point I knew just enough German to be able to ask where the bathroom was, but not enough to understand the answer when it came. I got a big fat zero in the exercise, recognizing no words in the song. Now I realize why. According to the article in this week's Zeit, Herr Sussebach, a native of Bochum and presumably reasonably competent in his native tongue, couldn't understand any of the words either. The classic line, "Du hast 'n Pulsschlag aus Stahl, man hört ihn laut in der Nacht," came across to him as "Du hassn-pulschla-auschta, mannöti-laut-indana."

Despite this inauspicious beginning, I became a devotee of the pop music method of language learning. There are other methods to be sure. My son used the comic book method and learned to speak a reasonably fluent Deutsch in about four months. He did tend to fall into a Captain Haddock mode once in a while and we all still use expressions from Lucky Luke, (Immer mit der Ruhe, Joe!) but all in all, an excellent learning approach. My daughter, on the other hand, is a firm believer in the TV method. She speaks almost unaccented German, but the danger here is that the TV student can use the language parrot-like and respond to simple questions with impassioned slogans from commercials. (20% auf alles - außer Tiernahrung!) For this and other reasons, I focused on pop music and I'm still using the method.

An advantage with this method is that pronunciation improves dramatically, maybe because singing seems to free us from expectations about how words should sound. It's allowed me to hear a lot of really difficult and subtle distinctions in German. Unfortunately, pop music tends to favor certain kinds of vocabulary. I'm currently studying Italian using the pop music method and if I need to end a romantic relationship with una ragazza during my sabbatical year, I'll be totally fluent. But all learning methods have their drawbacks, including official study in school. I studied Spanish for five years in school but when I go into Pablo's, my favorite barbershop back in Logan, I often give a quick report on the health of Paco y Luisa in answer to the question of how I'd like my hair cut. No doubt Pablo is used to this from some of his other gringo customers.

So did Herbert Grönemeyer's 4630 Bochum change my life? Probably not, but if I include all the music I've listened to in the service of language learning, Schrei nach Liebe, Adriano Celentano, Los Super Seven, I think I'd have to say, "Yes." According to Karl der Große, aka Charlemagne, to speak another language is to possess a second soul. I'd agree, and when you get your second soul by listening to pop music, it can be sehr charmant.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama wins: Deutschland feiert

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Andreas Gursky Miniatures

Two photos exhibitions in as many days. It may seem strange for a painter, but Gursky's new work didn't look much like photographs. More like paintings, in fact.

The show was at Haus Lange and Haus Esters, a couple of homes designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, that the city of Krefeld has turned into an art museum. The buildings were interesting, although from some viewpoints a little sterile for my taste. The photographs inside were a mixed bag. The museum decided to show what amounted to a Gursky retrospective, but since the space isn't big enough to accommodate his work, they displayed them at about 10% of their intended size. It was like going to an exhibition of a goldsmith's work, but all done in tin to save money.

They did have a few images in the original size and they were worth the trip.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

All Saints' Day

Trick or treaters came to our apartment on Halloween night. A first for me in Deutschland. They were well costumed, but I forgot to get a photo. Rats.

We spent the next day in Aachen. It rained all day and we visited the Suermondt-Ludwig Museum and saw a fabulous exhibition of Arthur Leipzig's work. The Dom was spectacular. The Rathaus was closed for the holiday. Likewise a fascinating store that seems to specialize in wigs, but maybe I'm just jumping to false conclusions based on a shop window display that I found mesmerizing.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Die Platte, die mein Leben veränderte

Die Zeit
has a weekly feature called, "The Album That Changed my Life." This past week's contributor wrote about John Coltrane's milestone, A Love Supreme. It's a great album and it might have changed my life too, but it didn't, because my life was already busy being changed by McCoy Tyner's Expansions. Mr. Tyner was the pianist in Coltrane's quartet when the Love Supreme recording was cut in 1964, so I'm not far off. Expansions was released in 1968 and I probably heard it for the first time in 1970 or so. It was a time in my life when I was pretty malleable and some days my life got changed twice before breakfast. Still, McCoy Tyner's album really was an important puzzle piece for me and I was musing about it this morning as I noticed that on the same page as the Coltrane tribute, there was a review of a new CD by McCoy Tyner: Guitars.

American jazz performers have often found a broader audience on this side of the Atlantic than at home, and it still seems to be the case. One of the performers on Tyner's new CD, John Scofield, will be touring in Europe this winter and I'd like to see him at one of the smaller venues in December. It's been forty years, but I think I might be ready to finally bring the incident with the apple core on Middlebrook Farm Road to a close.

In 1968 I was attending Wilton Jr. High School and Mr. Scofield was driving Bus 22, which brought me there each weekday morning. I tended to sit toward the back of the bus and often got into a certain amount of mischief with a group of like-minded delinquents. There were intense interrogations after the incident in question, but we never gave up the jerk (Eric Steinleicht) who actually threw the apple. I saw John Scofield perform at the Village Gate in 1978, but somehow the time wasn't right. Meeting now on neutral ground in Germany, maybe we can put this thing to rest.

McCoy Tyner's Expansions probably isn't as great an album as A Love Supreme, but my exposure to jazz was random and no one provided me with a hierarchy for listening. So I heard A Love Supreme for the first time performed by John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana on a collaborative album titled Love, Devotion and Surrender recorded in 1973 while they were both were devotees of guru Sri Chinmoy. Chinmoy was running an organic bakery at the time on the north edge of Wilton (I'm not making this up) and I bought a loaf of bread or two from him. But if Carlos ever drove a school bus, it was never my route. And in the long run, the experiences that form us don't have to be the most culturally significant. What I learned from Expansions I might just as well have learned from John Coltrane, but the important thing is that I learned it. I'd like to think that John Scofield might have similar feelings about his time as a junior high school bus driver. It could be that kids like Eric Steinleicht and me are the reason he finally got his ass in gear and got that first gig with Miles Davis.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


When I was a bartender in Westport, Connecticut, I had no special interest in Germany. I worked in an Irish bar called the Tin Whistle Cafe, and if I had a connection to any European country, it would probably have been to my ancestral homeland, Ireland. We sold a fair amount of Guinness at the Whistle, and Irish issues were discussed among some of the regulars. In a way, the job was just an extension of my years at Our Lady of Fatima School, where all the nuns were Irish-American with fabulous Boston accents. One Irish issue I followed in the papers each year was the controversy in New York about gay and lesbian participation in the St. Patrick's Day parade. There was usually a joke about it going around the bar. I'm following a similar controversy in Germany right now that centers on the new mosque proposed for Köln. The intriguing part of this juxtaposition for me is that during the intervening 25 years, my decision to leave the field of mixology for academia has limited my contact with this kind of news.

Yes, I follow the big stuff on KUSU, a National Public Radio affiliate. (And I'm doing a little victory dance right now that I'm not in Utah listening to the deadly dull pledge drive.) But listening is not READING. I love to read a good newspaper and feel there is no substitute. It's a paradox that as a Universitätsprofessor, I can't find the time to read a daily paper. When I tended bar, I picked up all the papers on my way into work and laid them on the bar for customers to read at lunchtime. The Whistle was primarily a nightclub bar, with live music and a fairly young crowd. But during the day, when I worked, it served lunch to a small group of regulars and imported and domestic beer to a slightly larger crowd for happy hour. It was the sort of place where Paul Newman could come in for a quiet lunch and not be disturbed. It was the sort of place where even the bartender wasn't often disturbed. Most days I read the New York Times cover to cover, scanned the Daily News comics and checked the headline on the Post from across the room to test my eyesight.

Here in Essen, I again have the time to enjoy a good newspaper and I've gotten a subscription to Die Zeit. It's an excellent paper and it reminds me of the old days in Westport. They've got a great story in this week's edition about the opening of a new mosque in Duisburg, a city neighboring Essen to the west. The remarkable part of the story is how things are going in Duisburg compared to Köln. A new mosque is also proposed in Köln, but there the new building is being met with an intense controversy. The right wing group, Pro Köln, has organized protests and conservative and neo-fascist groups around Europe are using the mosque as a rallying point. In contrast, the Duisburg mosque has been built and will open today with little protest. The prime mover in the building process has been a woman, Zülfiye Kaykin, and the new mosque is poised to be the center of a vibrant Turkish community in this Ruhrgebiet city that is often called Istanbul am Rhein. One can only hope that the project in Köln will be as successful in the long run.

In the days when I was tending bar, I also did the crossword puzzle every day, often working with one or two of my more literate patrons. The Times puzzle gets harder as the week goes by, but in 100 weeks, it could never get as hard as the Zeit crossword is for me. The conventions of American crossword puzzles, taught to me over the years by my father, (who had a system of doing the Times puzzle with three different colored pens) are not the same as the conventions in Germany. I can't get even the simplest of clues and don't understand why other people bother, since the words don't really mesh in a big grid. I guess there are some aspects of an adopted culture that will always remain foreign.