Thursday, July 30, 2009

Beavertail Lighthouse

The island I live on when I'm back in New England is pretty special. Not really big enough to attract much attention, it's been bypassed by most developers. There's a shortage of water on the island as well, and that's shaped the zoning laws that control building. Jamestown just isn't attractive to the companies that want to provide us with burgers, pizza and $5.00 flavored lattes. I don't think we'll ever see a McDonalds here. Just across the Newport Bridge, recently renamed the Claiborne Pell Bridge, (the same US senator that the Pell Grants are named for) things are very different. Compare and contrast these two images:

Jamestown, RI (Conanicut Island)

Newport, RI (Aquidneck Island)

Mostly I stay on my side of Narragansett Bay, where yesterday was foggy and 100 percent humidity. I took a ride down to the lighthouse at Beavertail Point, just a mile south of my house and when I arrived, my glasses were coated with tiny beads of water, even though it wasn't raining. I took some pictures of America's third oldest lighthouse, and also some of the old gun batteries that are sprinkled around the southern tip of the island. Conanicut Island was invaded by the British back in 17 seventy something and a gun battery further up the coast that controlled the west passage to Providence was burned by them. The gun emplacements I was looking at yesterday were built during the Second World War to protect us from the Germans, but I don't think they saw much action. And I believe that the majority of the "British" who landed during the Revolutionary War were actually also Germans. Hessians, to be specific, who were fighting for the British as mercenaries.

All of which convinces me that I can find excuses to keep up this blog, that is essentially one American's commentary on things German, indefinitely. I've have a few comments in the last week from readers speculating about the future of Forschungsjahr, a blog that was supposed to document a sabbatical year in Germany. My year is just about over now and I too have been thinking about what the future might bring to the blog. I imagined originally that I would be reporting on progress in Essen toward the Kulturhauptstadt 2010 preparations and similar issues. Instead the blog turned into a soapbox, from which I spouted about just about anything that grabbed my interest. Germany, the Ruhrgebiet, Essen, and my experiences there were strong threads running through most of my posts, and I believe that will continue to be the case. I may have to stretch a little to make the "German" connection work, or maybe I won't even bother. Either way, this soapbox is just too much fun. I'm not giving it up.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Against all odds, I made it back to Rhode Island. The final days in Essen were chaotic and stressful. Despite all my efforts to keep my life lean while I was on sabbatical, stuff accumulated. I jettisoned most of my clothing as I packed, but I had a year's worth of paintings to transport, a bicycle, books and plenty of odds and ends. When I saw it all together, loaded into a friend's Citroën Berlino, it became very obvious that my decision to rent a "compact" car at JFK to haul it all to Rhode Island was absurd. Still, we checked the bags the evening before our flight without real difficulty, turned over the Wohnung the next morning to our landlady, got a ride to the airport from Thore and his mom, and I crossed my fingers things would work out when we arrived.

The box I packed my bike in got wet on the plane and and was a damp rag, barely holding together when we arrived in New York. I loaded the mountain of suitcases onto a cart and laid the bike carefully across the top for the trip from baggage claim to ground transportation. Presumably the mysteries of plate tectonics were responsible for the slide that brought the bike and all supporting cases to the floor of the main entrance hall. Aftershocks were to follow, but I didn't know that as I built the tower up again.

At the car rental agency, as I waited in line, I heard one of the agents tell a prospective customer without a reservation, "Sorry, if you have no reservation, we can't help you. We're out of cars." I had been expecting to be able to upgrade my own reservation to a "full size" vehicle, or maybe an eighteen wheeler. Sweat dripped from my brow as I watched the woman helping me complete the paperwork. Plan "A" was removing my shoe laces and using them to lash the bike to the roof. There was no plan "B." Then the woman behind the counter looked up at me and asked, "We don't have a compact car available at this time. Would you accept a Jeep Liberty instead?" Always cautious, I asked, "Will there be any additional charge?" Nope. No additional charge. I agreed to accept the Jeep and when we reached the Throgs Neck Bridge we stopped for a short victory dance.

I could never have gotten it all done without help from lots of friends. Many thanks to all of you, and a special thank you to Thore who came by on the last full day to help with packing. He was a blur of activity all morning, but finally settled down for a rest long after his nap time had come and gone.

Two weeks here and then it's on to Utah and yet more culture shock.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Not the heat

In a previous post I complained about a slow Internet connection at my Wohnung. The people at T-Mobile must have heard me, because now I have no connection at all. It's all part of a trend here. Almost as if Essen can sense my impending departure, things are coming to a close all around me. Rubens, my favorite coffee roaster on Emmastr. is closed and the family that runs it is on Urlaub. Ditto for our local Turkish place where the boys behind the counter make the finest aubergine pizza this side of Istanbul and always have a complimentary baklava ready for us. We didn't even get to say goodbye.

The upside to Rubens being closed was that while I stood outside and read the sign, I remembered that I wanted to photograph the great window display they have there. The result is shown above. It's a sure-enough dollhouse coffee shop and while my photo doesn't do it justice, it makes me want to buy a coffee roaster and go into business every time I see it.

With just four days to go, I'm doing a lot of thinking about the sabbatical experience. I realize that there are things I just won't be able to get to now. I've accomplished a lot, but not everything I wanted, and it seems I just have to accept that. I wanted very much to improve my pronunciation of the illusive "ü" sound in German, but I've made little progress there. I can say the normal "u," as in Schule, but the more extreme "ü" stumps me. Two words in particular make my poor pronunciation a real problem: schwul and schwül. Schwul means "gay" and schwül means "humid." In most cases, I get away with my accent being seen as charmant, but given the wide gap between the meaning of these two words and my almost total lack of ability to even hear the difference (much less pronounce it,) I find that in this case, my accent just leads to confusion and embarrassment.

I was discussing this on a hot, muggy day recently, as my wife and I were walking through the vacation-deserted streets of Essen. We were both over heated and sweaty and I was trying to work through the impending departure and accept the inevitable. She was supportive and philosophical and reminded me of something I hope I won't soon forget: When it comes to temperature and good pronunciation, it's not the heat, it's the homosexuality.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


Hard to believe, but just eleven months ago I was busy building work tables for my studio. Now those tables, a miracle of vernacular furniture design, are a real problem. I don't know what to do with them as I pack up for the return trip to Utah. At one point, I had this idea that I would be able to easily sell most of my stuff before I left. It turns out my thinking was overly optimistic. I've listed a couple of things on but the only responses came from Lagos, Nigeria and the potential buyer requested that I include a couple of new Toshiba laptop computers in the shipment.

I'm giving a different site a try now: Let's cross our fingers that I get some action there. Otherwise my beautiful tables will wind up in the Sperrmüll.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Independence Day in Oelde

There's a hot debate going on in Germany right now about who has the slowest internet connection. Many voices are heard and there are thousands of candidates, but a consensus is emerging: it's me. I have the slowest of the slow. This has been going on the entire year but I've made a point of not getting into it here at Forschungsjahr. It's like the elderly woman I spoke with yesterday in Oelde said: "There's too much complaining today!" So, even though my internet connection is genuinely lousy, I'm resisting the urge to complain.

I was minding my own business in Oelde, a small town on the eastern edge of the Münsterland, when the elderly woman approached me with her walker. She squeezed by me and I said "Excuse me," as I tried to make room for her. She paused, looked at me and said (more or less) "There's no need to excuse yourself. There's plenty of room here. I'm not a complainer, like so many people today. Everyone would be happier if they went through a World War as I did." She followed up in a slight Polish accent, giving a quick summary of her daily schedule during the war: up at 5am, milk the cow so her little sister would have something for breakfast, and so on. She was a hot ticket and we traded world views for a minute or two before she headed off for the town center to do her shopping. "I'm blind as a bat and the only way I can get home is by counting the buildings as I go by to keep track of where I am," she said. "Aller Achtung!" said I.

I thought that was it, but as she inched away she caught sight of my bike in spite of her near total blindness. "Affengeil!" she said. A direct translation would be something like, "Monkey horny!" Not the kind of comment I expect from a woman who is clearly well into her eighties. Technically geil means horny, as in lustful, desirous of sexual activity, but really it's a slang word expressing impressed approval. When I was a kid we said "wicked!" Some kids, not me, said "boss!" which I always found ridiculous. Later, when I was in college, people started saying "bitchin'." Not much of an improvement. Today, my students mostly say, "awesome." But this old gal in Oelde says "Affengeil!," which I think is rad.

And another thing that's pretty geil: last night I saw fireworks, Fourth of July Fireworks, ON THE FOURTH OF JULY! In the States, Fourth of July Fireworks are generally set off on the 5th, the 6th, the 8th... Any date will do, so long as it's not the 4th. I'm a pretty conservative kind of guy and I think we ought to celebrate the Fourth on the 4th. Or not at all. Why the City of Essen decided to celebrate American Independence Day at all is a mystery to me, but they did a fine job of it. We sat in our darkened living room and had a great view of the sky over Gruga Park where the rockets' red glare silhouetted the houses and trees across the street. This is the kind of display I'd like to see in Logan, Utah and I considered writing a letter to our current mayor about it, but ultimately decided, there's too much complaining today. When I want to see a decent fireworks display on the Fourth, I'll just come to Germany for a visit.