Friday, December 25, 2009

White Christmas

The weather has dominated the news in the US for the past week or so and the same is true for Germany. The Ruhr region doesn't get many serious snow storms as a rule, but this past week they were hit hard. I picked up on the story listening to WDR and went to some local print news sites to get more detail online. My search brought up some references to the recent snow, but I was quickly sidetracked by news about a new children's book being featured in a series of pieces in the KinderZEIT. KinderZEIT is a regular feature of the weekly newspaper, Die Zeit. It has stories aimed at children and they're going to be publishing one of the tales from Ritter, Räuber, Spökenkieker by Hartmut El Kurdi each week until mid-February. Herr El Kurdi is a Jordanian born writer, who grew up in the UK and Germany. The perfect multi-kulti credentials for this book of Ruhrgebiet folk tales, given the Ruhr's reputation as Europe's ultimate melting Pott.

Like everything that happens in the Ruhrgebiet right now, the publication of the folk tales volume is timed to coincide with the Kulturhauptstadt year, 2010. The festivities will bring a lot of attention to Essen and the surrounding cities and I imagine sales for the book might be just a little stronger than would otherwise be the case.

I enjoyed the first story, but was again sidetracked as I read the profiles of loyal KinderZEIT readers in the web page sidebar. It seems kids can send in short bios and get an early fifteen minutes of fame if the newspaper chooses their bio for publication. The format is reminiscent of the "Dewar's Profiles" that used to run at the back of the New Yorker and similar magazines in the US: passport style photo in the upper right and short answers to a series of standard questions, such as, Where do you live? What do you find particularly nice about living there? What doesn't appeal to you there? What makes you sad? What word do you always misspell? I was fascinated by the questions alone, never mind the answers the kids gave.

Thinking back to my own childhood, I'm wondering, were American kids in the 1960's allowed to be sad? I don't think so. Not that we weren't ever sad, it's just that society didn't really allow for the possibility that we would ever think about it in the abstract. I think what made me most sad when I was younger were the Saturdays when my father would abruptly announce that he would be cutting hair after lunch. Not his own hair, of which there wasn't enough to bother talking about, but our hair: we the children. Those Saturdays always ended with me looking like some skinny reform school type, tried as an adult and prepped for the electric chair. I knew school on Monday would be a living hell and wondered why a parent would make his child look that bad on purpose. But by Tuesday I had already forgotten that haircuts existed and lived in a fool's paradise until the next Saturday my father would decide to make my brothers and me look like a band of youthful collaborators.

As I read the profiles in the KinderZEIT I was surprised to see that the German kids were made sad by things like fighting, war, death, or in two cases, noise. I fought constantly as a kid and don't remember being sad about it. Angry, yes, but only if I lost. And noise? I loved noise and reveled in noisy things. Reading these profiles, I wondered if maybe it's only the children of Zeit readers that get sad about noise. Probably kids whose parents read the Bild Zeitung get sad about stuff that I could relate to, like having to go to bed in the summer when it's still light out. But not all Zeit reader children are so sophisticated. One child, when asked what he particularly disliked about his home town (Marburg,) replied "Hundehaufen." In my neighborhood we called it dog doo and we didn't like it either. I couldn't have responded in any meaningful way to a question about a world free of war, but if we just could have made the front lawn safe for playing "Duck, Duck, Goose," that would have meant a lot to me.

The Hundehaufen in Essen are all safely hidden today under a glittering blanket of white snow and presumably the children, whether Zeit readers or Bild readers are looking forward to the excitement of Christmas tomorrow. The quintessential Christmas for me is still the year my brother got a toy cannon, one that shot real wooden shells. We took advantage of my parent's absence for a short time to get the range on the Christmas tree and lay waste to a number of glass ornaments. It was great fun, but for tomorrow, I'm hoping for a Christmas that would make a KinderZEIT reader happy: quiet, no fighting and everyone in Marburg gets a shiny new Pooper Scooper under the tree.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

European problems

The problems I face in Logan, Utah at this time of year tend to revolve around snow removal and idling vehicles. A walk to the store will probably involve at least one resident who thinks that the sidewalk is a good place to throw the snow as they clear their driveway. And after making the way clear for their Lincoln Navigator, they often leave it in the fire lane at a local shopping center while they run in for a few things. Sometimes I find it hard to maintain my normal buoyant and upbeat attitude. Then life sends you a video like the one below and you can't help but laugh as you realize others are suffering too.

I guess Misery really does love company.

Friday, December 4, 2009


Buried deep in the psyche of most U. S. North Americans is the concept of The Road. I don't mean to try to claim road stories just for America: Homer did a pretty good job with The Odyssey and presumably journey tales figure in many of the world's cultures. But in America, The Road is deep and significant. Sometimes, Our Hero is on the road of discovery. He's on the road to find out. But more often than not, road stories are about being pursued. My appreciation of road stories began with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and continued with books like On the Road, but my favorite road tales were quickly dominated by film. The list of road films is long and illustrious: It Happened One Night, Five Easy Pieces*, Rain Man, The Get Away, Thelma and Louise. I saw so many of these films growing up, I think I took it for granted that ultimately we'd all be on the run one time or another. It wasn't a future that I found entirely unappealing.

Germans love road films too, as far as I can tell, and more than one German film director has abandoned his or her Heimat and landed in Hollywood to make one. Some even stay at home and give it a try. I'm thinking here about Adolf Winkelmann and his trilogy of Ruhrgebiet cult films. Die Abfahrer is a classic road movie and has a small but dedicated following. But the truth is, being on the run in Deutschland is a far cry from floating down the mighty Mississippi on a raft. As two escapees from the JVA Aachen demonstrated this past week.

The JVA is a high security prison but in spite in that, two Kumpels, Michael Heckhoff and Peter Paul Michalski, both of whom were sentenced to life without parole, walked out last week and held most of North Rhine/Westphalen in suspense for several days as they eluded capture. If they had broken out of Leavenworth, Folsom or Angola, their plan would have been clear: steal a car and make a run for the Mexican border. Along the way there would have been plenty of opportunities for mayhem, high speed chases, and a killer sound track. Mexico is too far away to be a reasonable escape plan for German escapees, but they might at least have lit out for Italy, Spain or Turkey. Instead they called a taxi after breaking out and decided to go to Mulheim. "We're going on the assumption that the presence of a taxi waiting outside the prison was not a coincidence." said the State Attorney General Robert Deller. That would be my guess too.

I would also guess that these two convicts had never seen a good road picture like Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry or even The Straight Story. If they had, things might have turned out differently. As is was, the cops just went to Mulheim, former home of Heckhoff, and waited. No chase, no wrecked police cars, no nothing. Hollywood isn't likely to be negotiating for the rights to this story.

But the drama wasn't over yet. The pair split up in Kettwig and the second man, Michalski, was now "on the lam." If it were a decent screen play, he would have crossed the Dutch border on a Rhine river barge, made it to Rotterdam, and joined a swarthy crew bound for Honduras. This guy decided to go to Bielefeld. No sense of adventure. The cops picked him up by homing in on his Handy (mobile phone) and when they nabbed him, he was riding a stolen bike in a downpour. The cops took him into custody and his comment was, "I'm glad it's all over..." Yeah, I'd be glad it was over too if I was puffing along a busy highway shoulder with trucks splashing dirty water up on me.

What these guys really needed, was a 57 Chevy and four or five hundred miles of Route 66 to play around with. I'm glad the two of them are back in the slammer where they belong, but in a way, it's sad. I enjoy living in Germany and hope to be back there soon, but if I'm ever on the run, be it on a bike, motorcycle, Dodge Charger or even a rider mower, I'll want to do it in America where these things are properly understood.

* While doing the research for this post, I found some amazing stuff I can't help but share. Here's the Diner Scene from Five Easy Pieces.

And click here for a news report on Welt TV