Sunday, June 28, 2009

Horst Karl Georg Schimanski

When I was younger, during my high school years and later while I was in college, I did a lot of different jobs but they all involved physical work. I painted houses, did carpentry and landscaping. I raked leaves for the widow of Robert Benchley and painted an armoire more than 20 times for the former wife of a minor Getty millionaire. She couldn't make up her mind on the color, but I only started notching the damn thing after coat five or six. Working on a crew of guys installing septic systems was a particularly tough assignment, not because of the work (which was back breaking) but because of the hazing I was subjected to by my coworkers. I was the "college boy" and they delighted in demonstrating their superior intelligence.

My point is, I didn't just fall into this Professor thing. Yes, I am erudite, I've read Der Zauberberg in the original language, and have seen all the Fellini films twice, but I also know how to change my own oil and just yesterday seriously considered buying a bottle of Lambrusco. And I like reading a good solid Krimi once in while. Fast paced stuff in the Raymond Chandler vein is what I'm after, and right now I'm reading a real potboiler by Jonathan Kellerman, Twisted. The plot revolves around a series of apparently unrelated murders that all happen on June 28 in successive years. Today happens to be June 28, and that's a little eerie, but more importantly, June 28, 2009 is the twenty eighth anniversary of Horst Schimanski's debut on ARD's Tatort. I've mentioned Tatort in previous blog posts (See, Ruhrort, Rad Curiosities and A Vast Wasteland) but I've never given Schimanski his due. Now all that will change.

According to BILD am Sonntag, Kriminalhauptkommissar in Duisburg, Horst Schimanski is the most popular Tatort Kommissar of all time. He appeared in 29 episodes of Tatort over the years, and when he retired from that show, ARD whipped up another series for him entitled, (what else?) "Schimanski." But he wasn't always the big hit he became over time. After his first episodes were shown, a lot of the reaction was negative. One Ruhrgebiet newspaper responded with the headline, „Werft den Prügel-Kommissar aus dem Programm!“ (= Thrown Detective "Slugger" Out of the Lineup!) The real Police Commissioner of Duisburg commented on the first episode by saying that the character of Schimanski wouldn't be allowed to work bike theft in his city. But something about Schimanski appealed to the public and actor Götz George continued serving up the gritty Schimanski character to viewers for many years.

I find Schimanski something of a paradox myself. Or maybe I should say, I find his warm reception by my German friends and acquaintances paradoxical. I need to be careful here not to reduce anyone I know (and especially anyone I know who actually reads my blog) to a cultural stereotype, but I know the kind of people who might request a Ruhrgebiet wine at the liquor store, because they've read that buying locally reduces your carbon footprint. Schimanski on the other hand, is the kind of guy who flicks his cigar into the Rhein before breaking the jaw of some nouveau riche arms dealer with a left jab. But my ecology minded friends love Schimanski. A Duisburger Tatort episode is quite likely to open with Schimmi and a Kumpel exiting a house of prostitution, stinking drunk, and administering a bawdy slap on the butt to one of the gals as they stumble down the front steps. What do my (post) feminist friends think of that? They love him.

The answer to the paradox is probably that Schimanski is not just a macho jerk. He weeps in almost every episode. And although he is mildly frauenfeindlich, he's the first cop to offer his coat to a wounded prostitute at the crime scene. Plus, Schimanski ushered in a new pride in the Ruhrgebiet. In the early 80's Essen, Dortmund, Duisburg and the rest of the Ruhrpott were suffering from a very poor self image. According to the Westdeutsche Allgemeine (WAZ), the Ruhrgebiet wanted to be everything, just not the Ruhrgebiet. But Schimanski was very much a Ruhrgebiet kind of guy, and proud of it. Suddenly being from the Ruhrgebiet could be sexy. Public relations campaigns proclaimed that "The Pott Cooks!" and Industrial Culture was discovered. I don't know if Schimanski caused that. More likely, he was just surfing the wave. But it was an important turning point for the most populous region in Germany and Schimmi became a symbol of the change.

Now, with less than a month to go here in Germany, I've decided I need a Schimanski Jacke. It's a standard type M65-American military jacket and was worn by Schimanski like a uniform. They're not easily found now that the Schimanski legend is 28 years old. The original is in the Duisburger Kultur- und Stadthistorischen Museum, but I'd like to find one for sale in a store. It won't do anything to enhance my image on campus, but I've got my low brow side to consider too. With a Schimanski Jacke in my wardrobe, maybe those guys in the orange pinafores at Home Depot won't be so condescending when they tell me the self tapping screws are on aisle 34.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

On The Road: Hösel and Kreis Mettmann

The weather here has been cooler the past two weeks and we've had plenty of rain too, although mostly the storms don't last very long. When the sun breaks through, you think to yourself, "I should be out enjoying this fine weather." But when it starts raining again, you realize it's just as well that you are working inside where it's dry.

This week we've had several really warm sunny days in a row, so I decided to play hooky today and take my bike out for an extended spin. I've become pretty savvy over the course of a year, learning a lot of tricks for getting around by bike and foot and avoiding traffic. I put that knowledge to work today and began my ride by crossing Gussmanplatz, passing the Krupp Krankenhaus and taking the secret footbridge over the Autobahn. It's a secret I share with five to ten thousand other residents of the Rüttenscheid area, but it took me sometime to find out it was there. Using it allows me to get almost all the way to Stadtwaldplatz without using any high traffic roads. From Stadtwaldplatz I can take Lerchenstrasse down to Werden and then follow the path along the Ruhr as far as I like.

Then I struck out away from the river toward Düsseldorf. Leaving the river means climbing and I went up some very steep hills, but when things flattened out again, I was riding through farm land and competing with horses and tractors for the right of way. The landscape I rode through was sort of surprising. The towns, Hösel, Heilingenhaus, Ratingen, et al., were mostly just names on a map to me until today, but they were an odd mix of rural and suburban, with a higher emphasis on auto travel than I expected. Hösel has a grade crossing where the S-Bahn line to Köln crosses a main street. Two lanes of auto traffic are protected by gate arms that swing down to stop cars, but they are complemented by cute little baby gate arms that swing down for the bike/pedestrian lane. An appropriately quaint little bell chimes while you wait and I had the privilege of seeing the S6 to Köln go by in the company of a mother and her two boys, who were about 3 and 4. I can remember my own fascination with trains at that age (which hasn't faded all that much) and I could sense a similar excitement and tension in these kids too. In the United States today, finding a real train to look at isn't easy. The under ten set in Hösel, on the other hand, has it good.

Eventually I found my way back to the river, this time going downhill on a narrow lane that wouldn't qualify as a sidewalk in Utah, but supported two way traffic here. I hopped on an S-Bahn train at Werden to ride back up the other side and home and had an interesting conversation on the train with a guy who noticed my bike and asked me about it. He's interested in commuting to work on a bike and wanted to know if it were possible to buy one like mine. I told him I bought mine on eBay Deutschland, but also told him that there is a Dutch website,, where sensible Liegeräder are thick on the ground. We talked about the pros and cons of the different bike types and then it was my stop. Just before getting off I encouraged him take a look at the website I mentioned and he said, "Well, unfortunately I don't speak any Dutch." Neither do I," I replied, "But if you look up a few key words, it's not that tough to read a listing for a bike, especially if the pictures are good." "Oh, he said, I thought you were from the Netherlands."

I guess I could choose to be irritated that I can't pass for German, but I love the fact that I'm not recognized as a U. S. North American by many. It may be a moot point right now, but if Palin is back in 2012, I want my cover to be airtight.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Wladimir Kaminer

While I'm working I often listen to audio books in the studio. People ask me if I don't find listening to the text distracting, but in fact, exactly the opposite is true. That part of my brain that isn't occupied with painting wanders and distracts me when I don't give it something to do. Listening to a novel or nonfiction book keeps me on track and doesn't interfere at all with the part of my brain that's concerned with visual issues. This year I've listened to a lot of interesting stuff, but one of my favorites has been the essays of Wladimir Kaminer, a native Russian who immigrated to Germany in 1990.

Kaminer writes in German although he only started learning the language when he came here from his native Moscow. The big bonus for me is that he reads his own essays, which mostly deal with his existence as a Russian living in Berlin, with a fabulous Russian accent. He rarely addresses the language issue specifically but made an exception in an essay I listened to this past week, Deutsch für Anfänger (=German for Beginners.) I appreciated his insights not only about German, which he compares to Legobausteine, but also about the relationship between language mastery and writing in general. Essentially, he sees language as a tool, a hammer that he uses to whack his essays into shape. That his mastery of German is incomplete seems to be a non-issue for him. He goes on to say that, for a writer that has something to say, less than perfect language skills shouldn't be a problem.

Kaminer's comments about language are a welcome affirmation of my own view of the significance of technical proficiency in the visual arts. Many of my students at Utah State University focus most of their effort on learning how to paint, whereas I believe the more important question is, why are they painting? Or to put it another way, what do they have to say? I'm sure Wladimir Kaminer works hard at his language skills and is probably still improving, but in the meantime, he's writing. His essays are humorous, insightful and informative. What some might have seen as a weakness, i.e. his quirky Deutschkenntnis, he has made into his greatest asset.

When I'm back in the classroom in a few months I'm glad that I'll have some experiences from my sabbatical I'll be able to share with my students. When they ask me for "tips" on how to make a shiny object look "realistic," I'll read aloud to them from Deutsch für Anfänger. That should work well, right? I doubt if Kaminer is available in English yet, but maybe I could use his works to get my foot in the door as a translator. While I consider my career options in post-financial-crisis Utah, you can enjoy Wladimir Kaminer's view of Barak Obama, courtesy of YouTube.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Ein Mann der Tat

It's a cliché, but true: the president of the United States really is the most powerful man in the world. One word from Obama and the biggest economy on the planet veers off in a new direction. He can support clean air initiatives or let them die in endless debate. As commander-in-chief he controls an arsenal that would have even Barry Goldwater thinking twice about the wisdom of deterrence theory.

Still, my guess is, Obama doesn't feel very powerful. At every turn he probably finds himself compromising, adding layers of pork to a simple bill just to get it through Congress or choosing his words with care to avoid offending the earthworm lobby.

But in Germany his decisive action in dealing with a buzzing fly has everyone talking. I don't know with any certainty what it is about his swatting of a fly during a White House interview that so delights Deutschland, but delighted it is. I think Germans probably can't help but see the fly as a metaphor. For some it might be the banking crisis, for others the terrifying specter of a Palin presidency. Either way, Obama deals with it effectively and keeps his cool. Can you imagine Nixon in this situation? He'd bring in the FBI to find out which left-leaning media type brought the fly to the interview to louse him up.

Is this video clip playing in the States too? I don't know, but I do feel better knowing that the guy with his finger on the button can demonstrate his resolve without the need to rattle his saber every other day.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


I find surfaces in the US pretty boring as a rule. Roads, sidewalks, interior floors: there's not usually much going on there. Surfaces in Europe are a very different story. Almost everything is tiled here in one way or another. When workers need to work on the gas lines beneath the side walk, they just pull up the paving stones and set them aside. When they're finished, they replace the pavers and a week later no one would ever know they had been disturbed.

I started taking photographs of interesting surface patterns soon after I arrived here in September and I've been collecting new ones ever since. It's an occupation that turns every walk into a treasure hunt.

Two weekends ago I spent some time at the Innenhafen of Duisburg, a city neighboring Essen to the West, and I made a comment to an acquaintance saying that I thought it was too bad that Essen didn't have a harbor too. That led to a discussion in which I found out that Essen does have a harbor. Imagine my surprise. I've spent most of my time in southern Essen along the Ruhr. The Ruhr is pastoral. There are some old tow paths, but mostly it's a rural and residential landscape. Not so on the north side of Essen where the Emscher River flows. Here the Rhein/Herne Canal was dug to facilitate the transport of coal and other commodities. On Wednesday of this week I visited the forbidding north end of Essen, walked the Rhein/Herne Canal and saw the harbor, which, for the record, is tiny. It's dominated now by recycling facilities and among other things I watched while small bricks of shredded clear plastic were excreted from a chute into an open container for transport, presumably to some other even more desolate location.

Learning about the canal made me curious about this whole shipping thing and I followed up today by visiting Ruhrort, a Stadtteil of Duisburg. Ruhrort got it's start in the Middle Ages and it's the biggest inland port in Europe. It's the home of a great museum devoted to shipping on the Rhine and its related network of canals and rivers. The best part of the museum is that it's housed in a former bath house for the laborers of the steel works across the street. The architect did a fabulous job preserving the baths and adapting them to the needs of the museum. I could go on forever about this place, but I was supposed to say something about paving stones and tiles.

Here's the connection: water is a great mode of transport for heavy stuff. Heavy stuff that isn't particularly valuable, kilo for kilo. So... a harbor is where the stone, sand, gravel and other building materials typically enter a city. That meant that as I walked around the harbor in Essen I found a paving stone shop. For a guy that likes taking photographs of tiles and such, it was like I died and went to heaven.

Ruhrort and the seedy docksides of the Ruhrgebiet are also where most of the Tatort episodes featuring the legendary Schamanski were shot in the 1970's and 80's. It's a topic that's worthy of its own post here on Forschungsjahr and I plan to get busy with it soon. In the meantime, here are some of my favorite paving patterns from the past year:

Sunday, June 7, 2009


In a previous posting I gave some of the details of the neighborhood I grew up in. Our neighbors ran a refuse business and used part of their backyard as a parking space for the garbage trucks. The houses were all small and unusually close together, since they were all built by brothers (long before I was born.) Their mother lived in the original house on the property and by the time my family came along in the years after the end of World War II, although the houses had changed hands several time, we were still the only family in the neighborhood that was not related by blood to the original builders. Across the street was an estate that belonged to the family that owned Bloomingdales, but on our side things were decidedly more proletariat. Most fathers in the neighborhood had blue collar jobs, and when some of them came home in the afternoon, they would come down to the river bank with a bar of soap to bathe. More likely than not, the kids from the neighborhood would all be swimming already and we tried not to splash too much.

The highlight of each summer was when a large communal garage at the center of the half circle of homes was cleared of cars and set up for an all day/all night barbecue. The guests spanned several generations and they came to eat, drink, play games, listen to music, but mostly just to talk. I attended a party in Langenberg yesterday, south of Essen on the way to Wuppertal, that was organized by the Feuerwehr from Velbert and although it was a good deal larger over all, it had a similar feel to those old neighborhood blowouts. This party too was in a garage, but in this case it was a garage intended for fire trucks rather than the personal vehicles of our neighbors. The Fire Department Band played a remarkable line up of favorites including "On Wisconsin," by John Philip Sousa and "Dancing Queen," by Abba, which I had never heard performed by a brass band before.

Other attractions included a small shack that had a smoke machine inside. There was a line of little kids waiting their turn to turn the hoses on the shack, but each time they "put out" the fire, a fire department official would turn the smoke machine on again. Endless fun. Other kids were operating hook and ladder equipment, climbing a self built tower of Bierkisten (see photo sequence below) or wandering around eating their fourth Bratwurst. I spent most of my time in the garage, eating, eavesdropping on conversations and enjoying the music. Two elderly woman across from me discussed "Der Heinz," who one of them was sure was long dead. "No, no...," assured the other, "I saw him at Christmas..." "Oh, I thought he was long dead," repeated the first. "No, no," assured the other, "I saw him at Christmas..." And so on. I listened to plenty of such conversations at neighborhood parties and always wondered what was wrong with adults. Now I have conversations like that too.

Unfortunately conversations in my youth often trended toward the war in Vietnam and it was rarely a good thing, usually ending in some ineffectual blows exchanged and groups holding back the fighters. Yesterday was election day for the European Parliament, but I heard almost no discussion of that. In the Ruhrgebiet only a third of registered votes cast a ballot. I think most people would agree that the Greens are the big winners, to the extent that anyone can be said to be a "big" winner. But I think the most evocative element of the experience was the prevalence of smokers in the crowd. Please don't get me wrong. It's a filthy habit and I'm glad I gave it up after a few years when I was twelve. But in the 1960's just about everyone over 18 smoked and the world had a nice familiar stale nicotine aroma that was somehow comforting. Now smokers in the US are an endangered species, but being at an outdoor party in small town Germany is a little like being in one of those time warps that seemed so common on "Star Trek". Lots of lined faces, deep phlegmy voices and coughing. It gave me a warm nostalgic feeling for my youth.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Rad Curiosities

One day just isn't enough for many German holidays. In the same way that Hollywood just isn't satisfied with "Rocky," but has to go on to "Rocky II," here there is a Christmas 1 and a Christmas 2. This past weekend was such a doubled holiday with Pfingsten 1, followed by Pfingsten 2. We have many friends in Germany and they often provide me with insider info about cultural traditions. On Pfingsten 2 we went on a cycling tour with two such friends. We'll call them Michael and Marita. They told me that for many German citizens, a common pattern is to spend the first day of a twinned holiday with family. That means Mom, Dad and the kids, but also any available Omas, Opas, cousins and so forth. Michael claims that after a day in the bosom of the family, everyone needs a second day so that they can recover from all that loving togetherness.

So, we chose the second day of the two day holiday for our bike ride, the day that virtually all of North Rhine-Westfalia also decided to take a bike ride. It began auspiciously with a conversation on the S-bahn train to Hattingen. I attract a certain amount of attention with my glasses-mounted mirror (see photo) and a gentleman of about sixty asked me the usual questions: "Did I make it myself? How does it work?" While I was chatting with him I was checking out his ride: a classic Hollandrad that was about as old as its rider and retrofitted with some essentials. Among them, an ashtray on the handlebars. This detail told me everything I needed to know about the riding style of my temporary co-traveler.

We began our ride at Hattingen, heading south on a disused freight train line, cutting left to strike the Ruhr again, and then following the river back into Hattingen in the company of four or five hundred thousand other enthusiastic bike riders. The Ashtray kind of set the tone for the day and at every turn of the crowded path it seemed we saw another amazing variation on the basic bike theme. One guy was pushing a baby carriage while riding a unicycle. Bike trailers filled with dogs were common. We saw folding bikes and kids barely old enough to walk rolling along on bikes that would fit into any roomy backpack. In addition to the recumbent bike I was riding, we saw a variety of other recumbents including a Giant "Scooterbike" and a sure-enough lower rider recumbent built for racing. I photographed as many of the attractions as I could, but many went by too fast to be documented.

There were tandem bikes and crowds of people just walking too. With my North American ideas about personal space, I found the bike path a little crowded, but Michael's enthusiasm couldn't be dampened. Even after almost 60 km. and several rather large beers to help us unwind, he continued to lobby for riding the river path back to Essen and skipping the train ride. He wouldn't take "Nein" for an answer until we pointed out that we needed to be home in time for Tatort. That turned the tide and we were able to bring the day to a close, waving to Michael and Marita as we left them on the Bahnsteig.

The day closed with one last wheeled oddity. A rolling Kneipe, that I saw right in front of our building on the Rüttenscheiderstraße. There was space for twelve customers, six on either side of a central aisle where the bartender takes turns pouring beers and steering. Each customer has pedals under their seat and from time to time the revelers can move forward at a very dignified pace. If Michael wants to get me back to Hattingen again, I think this would be the proper vehicle for the trip.