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.