Friday, April 24, 2009


Essen is very close to the border with the Netherlands and there's a fair amount of influence that slops over, in both directions, from one to the other. I notice it in particular with the bike culture here. Most men in the Ruhrgebiet seem to prefer shock equipped mountain bikes that would be more at home on a rocky single track: not my idea of a good city bike. But women and some men are attracted to the upright posture frames common to Dutch bicycles. These bikes often feature full chain guards, fenders, an integral lock and a full array of baskets and panniers for shopping and/or a small dog. There are lots of brands, but Gazelle is so well known, people often use that brand name the way we might use the name Kleenex.

Coming out of the "10 speed" culture of the 1970's, these bikes didn't appeal to me when I first saw them, but they've really grown on me over the years. Now I covet every one I see. Gazelles are heavy bikes, so the appeal isn't about speed. On a Gazelle, the road is more important than the destination. I'm sure some of the attraction fades on the uphill stretches, but when people are riding a Gazelle, they just plain look good.

I've been keeping an eye out for a good used Hollandrad all year. In the meantime I've been riding another diamond frame upright bike that splits the difference between off-road and touring. It's a fine bike, but it has reminded me over the course of the year of something I already knew. Upright bikes and I aren't a good fit. After even a short distance, various aches and pains set in. I still covet the Gazelle, but I won't be riding one in this life.

A few years back I bought a recumbent bicycle in Seattle. It's a Bacchette and I love it. People that become involved with recumbent bikes often display what I consider to be an over-abundance of passion about the upright/recumbent issue. I'm working at keeping things in perspective. But in the interest of full disclosure, I think I have to admit, I may be a zealot.

And luckily for me, the Dutch don't just make beautiful upright bikes. They are also the home of several recumbent bicycle makers, some of them arguably among the most innovative in the world. The Flevobike company in particular is well known for innovation. One of their first products was a front wheel drive bike that hinges in the middle. Steering is accomplished by leaning. The front wheel drive feature is especially wacky and I'd love to have one of these bikes. But like the Gazelle, it's not a very practical solution for me. Instead, I bought a more basic model from Flevobike, used, on I'm off to Mainz tomorrow to pick it up. It's not very exotic as recumbents go, but I'm hoping it will be a good choice for getting around Essen and some touring on the weekends. Assuming it's as fun to ride as I'm expecting, I'll be packaging it for the return trip in July. A full report will follow next week.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Meilenweit von Nirgendwo

Sometime in the 70's I heard about the Central Square Theater in Cambridge MA. Supposedly they were showing The King of Hearts for the fifth straight year. I saw the film at the Avon in Providence where I went frequently while I was a student at Rhode Island College. A German army retreats during World War I and they booby-trap a French town to explode. The locals flee, lunatics escape from the local asylum and take over the town. Alan Bates, Geneviève Bujold... and so on. The film was didn't attract much attention when it came out in 1966, but it resonated with a generation in the 70's that was facing it's own pointless war and gained cult status in the US.

Five years running the same film is pretty impressive. I suppose it may have gone on longer than five years, but I don't think they're showing it now, so presumably they got to a point where they thought, "Enough is enough!" Not so in Essen, where the Galerie Cinema has been showing Harold and Maude for thirty three years. The print is in pretty bad shape, but my guess is, finding another that's in the original language (English) with subtitles (Deutsch) would be impossible. So one has to put up with some dust, scratches and a few breaks that have been spliced as well as can be expected. I was there for what must be my tenth viewing yesterday and I'm convinced the film gets better every time I see it.

Harold and Maude, like The King of Hearts, was kind of a flop when it came out in 1971. I didn't see it until much later, but I can imagine that it was just too different to find its audience in a hurry. Hal Ashby was the director, an Utah boy from a big family in Ogden. He was married and already divorced by seventeen. Somewhere along the way his father killed himself. Today we would say he came from a dysfunctional family. But he found his way to Hollywood and won an Academy Award for Film Editing for In the Heat of the Night. After H&M he went on to make a number of other films, including one of my favorites, Being There. He died in 1988 after one of those "famous guy becomes recluse and younger girlfriend won't let friends visit when he gets cancer which she wants him to treat with homeopathic methods" things. A typical Malibu story.

And some of you might have caught Bud Cort, who played the role of Harold, in the latest from Wes Anderson. Mr. Cort was in a terrible car accident that took him out of acting for the last two or three decades, but I've heard that the role he has in The Life Aquatic was written specifically for him. AND he has the distinction of having lived with Groucho Marx during his last days. Groucho was at the time living with a younger woman who, you guessed it, wouldn't let friends (excepting presumably Bud Cort) visit him. What is it with these people?

So how does a theater show the same film for thirty three years and not go out of business? It might help that the theater only seats about 24 people. It's basically a roomy Wohnzimmer in a house that wouldn't strike most of us as particularly large. The projector man/ticket taker wears an old fashioned change maker. If you ask nicely, he'll get you a beer or espresso before starting the film. Or if you prefer, an ice cream. On April 19th the 5pm showing had an audience of about twelve. Not quite standing-room only, but close. I don't think anyone is getting rich showing this film, but there are no plans yet to stop. I'm looking forward to my eleventh viewing already.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Planned Community

South of Frankfurt an der Oder, right on the Polish border, there's a city called Eisenhüttenstadt. Formerly it was known as Stalinstadt and before that Wohnstadt. I visited it over the Easter weekend primarily because I had read that it was an excellent example of Soviet-style city planning. The site on the Oder river was chosen after increasing tensions between East and West Germany made it difficult to bring steel products into the East sector from the Ruhrgebiet. A steel production industrial city was needed in the East and this particular piece of land had a number of advantages for German Democratic Republic planners, the first one being that it was a clean slate. There was nothing built there and the city could be laid out properly. River transportation was available as well as a good rail infrastructure.

Then, having made my decision to visit, I learned about the Dokumentationszentrum Alltagskultur der DDR. It's a very small museum devoted to daily life in the German Democratic Republic and it's in Eisenhüttenstadt. For any readers who might find themselves on the eastern border of Germany with an afternoon to kill, it's a must-see.

Like many of my generation, I'm intrigued by stories from behind the "Iron Curtain." The night my older siblings told me that the world was ending is one of my earliest memories. "In the morning, you'll be dead!" they reported gleefully. It was October of 1962 and Khrushchev and Kennedy were facing off over Cuba. Halloween was going to be ruined and I had a great cannibal costume I was planning. United Nations Secretary-General U Thant worked hard to find a peaceful compromise and it cost my mom just as much effort to reassure me that I wouldn't be blown up soon. Not before Christmas in any case. So my life, at least that part of it that I am aware of, really began with the cold war. Six years of grade school with the School Sisters of Notre Dame didn't help to give me a balanced view of communism. So, I had plenty of assumptions about life in the former GDR when I first came to Germany, four years after the Wall came down. But I have to say, not many of my assumptions are reinforced by current experiences. Not that I'm soft on Communism. When I think of the Stasi payroll, with what seems like the entire citizenry being paid to spy on each other, it seems like an inefficient system to say the least. But visiting the Dokumentationszentrum in Eisenhüttenstadt shows a side of this vicious police state that made me a little nostalgic for the old times. By the time I got to the video interview with the man who invented a tent that could be mounted on the roof of a Trabant, I was a convert of sorts.

The museum is housed in one of the Soviet style developments that represent the first phase of building in Eisenhüttenstadt. The buildings are well planned, and use the same kind of inner Hof set up that I've seen on the Stalin/Frankfurter Allee in Berlin. Later money was short and the Plattenbau took over, but these first buildings were quite nice. The museum is in the former daycare center for the community and the main stairs leading up are decorated with really wonderful stained glass. When I walked by the Plattenbau later in the day, my enthusiasm for the worker's paradise was dampened some, but no system is perfect, right?

Now that the wall is down, a new spirit reigns in Eisenhüttenstadt. The Plattenbau is being abandoned and new development is springing up all over. I'm glad the West won, but I'm not sure about current city planning in this new capitalist era in the former East Germany. I walked by a brand new shopping center in Eisenhüttenstadt called "City Center" and it's a toss up for me whether it looks more like Ogden, UT or Patterson, NJ. Either way, I think I prefer having the missiles in Cuba.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


There are certain types of businesses that often seem to have really silly names. Assuming the owners are making intelligent choices and understand their own client base, then we can gather that, on the average, we're looking for stability when we use the services of a banker or attorney. On the other hand, when we wash our clothing or buy a pet, we're willing to indulge the proprietor of the place of business that we're patronizing. I wouldn't mind shopping for a kitten or pet tortoise in a shop called "Paws & Claws," but I wouldn't want my mouthpiece in a capital case to come from a firm called "CU in Kourt." I noted shortly before leaving for Germany in July that a large U.S. savings bank, Washington Mutual, had changed its name to "WaMu," so there are exceptions to every generalization. But if "WaMu" isn't belly up yet, we probably don't have long to wait until it goes under. Then some appropriately conservative types can bring the company out of Chapter 11 and restore the former name in the process.

So what is it about certain kinds of businesses that brings out our misguided creativity? Hair salons are among the worst offenders. Whose quality of life hasn't been reduced by a "Hairport" or "The Mane Attraction" in the neighborhood? These kinds of businesses have several things in common. They are often owner-operated with no corporate structure, within which cooler heads could prevail. And their smaller size probably makes us as customers more tolerant as well. Plus, for me a barber is a neighborhood business. I always get my hair cut locally. I like a place where I can get a tip on a horse, but I won't cross town to get it. Neither will I avoid a place called "Blood, Sweat and Shears" if they can give me a decent haircut.

The catchy name is as common now in Deutschland as it is in the States. Previously it was normal for a Friseursalon to be called something like, "Friseursalon Olga," where the owner was named Olga. Now they often have names like "CHAARisma" or "CreHAARtiv." And a few weeks back, this trend was the focus of the Deutschlandkarte feature in Die Zeit. Each week Die Zeit presents us with some facts about Germany graphically displayed on a country map. The map of Germany is constant, but the information shown on the map changes radically from week to week. Some of my favorites from recent issues: animals that appear on the city/state coats of arms, how the names of German cities are spoken in other languages, Bionade drinkers per capita, (Bionade is a trendy new soft drink. Not too sweet and with distinctive flavors such as Quitte, Holunder or Litschi.) Interesting stuff.

Because of the visual presentation, the tendency toward editorializing is minimized. We can draw our own conclusions and make comparisons between the various cities of Germany in a way that, over time, builds a portrait of each. For the January 22 issue of Die Zeit, the Deutschlandkarte explored the distribution of hair salons with the names, "Haareszeiten," "Haarmonie" and "Haargenau." And the results are intriguing and entertaining. In what I consider to be fairly hip cities such as Berlin and München, these corny names have only a thin distribution. In the Ruhrgebiet however, you could get your hair cut in a place called "Haarmonie" every two weeks for several years and not visit the same place twice.

Compare these data with the results of last week's Deutschlandkarte which showed the percentage of citizens who pay their GEZ✝ tax of €17 per month. 94% in North Rhine-Westphalia. 78% in Berlin. This is a tax Germans pay on radios and televisions that funds public programing. €17 per month times twelve months is €204. The idea that ANYONE pays this tax I find amazing. That in Essen 94% percent of the the public, people who have their haircut at places named, among others, Haargenau, is simply unbelievable. Berliners are obviously notorious scofflaws, but I still have a good feeling about the city in general. The most recent Deutschlandkarte reinforced that attitude with a map that shows the cities that search Google most often for a series of words choosen by Zeit editors. Berlin: Culture, Peace, Homeland, Melancholy. München: Career, Profit, Sport. The map speaks for itself.

Gebühreneinzugszentrale der öffentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunkanstalten in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Grocery Research

A minor emergency required my presence in the French alps this past week. I spent a few days in a town called St. Jean de Maurienne and suffered from boredom punctuated by short periods of anxiety and panic. During the boredom, I wondered, what can I do for the blog? Ultimately I don't know much about France. Could I comment on lifestyle and culture in France with the same insight and precision that I exercise in Deutschland? The answer turned out to be, yeah, why not? The truth about France is complex. But I hate it when Europeans expect me to be a cross between LBJ and Homer Simpson, so why should I expect all Frenchmen to wear a beret, and drink red wine for le petit déjeuner?

At first I did see some "typical" French behavior. On Sunday morning every second person I passed on the street carried a bag with a pair of baguettes poking out the top. Individuals talking on the street did purse their lips in a Gallic way and blow air out with a shrug of their shoulders. But the grocery store tells a different story. Consider this yummy treat:

A bed of sauerkraut with an assortment of sausages, side meat, hot dogs and slices of what looks like salami. I don't know many Germans who could keep all this stuff down, but it seems like a regional specialty in this town. It was on the menu of at least one local restaurant. And this kind of prepared meal was a big item in the grocery store I visited. Options included paella and a kind of fish stew with salmon and mussels. Cooked chicken was another favorite. Even if we call it poulet, this doesn't look like my idea of French food.

I wandered through a section of the store devoted to toys and games and continued my research. First a game that looks very French. Participants build a funny looking swine-like creature. How does the girl get her braids to stick out like that?

But which is the bigger seller? "Build Your Own Cochon," or this item, clearly influenced by the kind of American who cuts his hair short on top but leaves it long at the back:

And then I came to this item. In a country where cheeses can stand up on their own little hairy gray legs, how do we explain this product? Easy, it's pour le burger.