Sunday, December 26, 2010

Is Paris Flooding?

 I leave for two weeks in Paris later today and the news of airport closings in Europe and in the States is just a little unnerving. I wonder what I was thinking when I made these plans back in September? Every year I hear horror stories from recently returned travelers and I laugh up my sleeve at them. Who, I ask myself, would be foolish enough to travel at the Christmas season?

Apparently, me.

Then, earlier this morning, I got an e-mail from a family member who is in the city of lights. She informed me that the Seine is flooding. They closed the airport last week for three inches of snow, so what will this mean? I wanted to learn more, and went on-line searching for current info. Here's what I found on a "chat" forum:

Due to all of the recent heavy snow east of Paris, the Seine is at its highest level in 4 years and rising fast. What does this mean?
-- Well, the Left Bank expressway is already closed because it will almost certainly go underwater in a day or two.
-- Half of the tourist boats, especially the big ones, are already cancelled because they can't get under the bridges anymore. The other boats have had to shorten their itinerary.
-- Next to be closed will be the Right Bank expressway (Voie Georges Pompidou) if the river keeps rising. This can wreak havoc with traffic flow near the Seine.
-- Finally, the RER C to Versailles could close if it starts flooding.
If you are going to Paris in the coming week or in January, this could affect some of your plans. (Italics mine, added for emphasis)

If there is any Internet service left on the continent, I'll post an update later this week.

Saturday, November 27, 2010


For reasons that are not really very clear, not even to me, I subscribe to a weekly e-mail newsletter that lets me know what films are playing in the Programmkinos of the Ruhr region in Germany. I live in Utah now, and the likelihood that I would attend a showing of say, Броненосец Потёмкин (The Battleship Potemkin) by spontaneously hopping a flight to Düsseldorf, hovers right around zero. I should cancel my e-mail subscription, but I don't. I think I keep it for the same reason that people buy exercise machines that gather dust in the basement. A combination of wishful thinking and just plain foolishness.

A Programmkino is what we in the US would call an "art cinema" or something like that. My first art cinema was the Avon in Providence, RI, where I saw Seven Beauties and my first Woody Allen films. I think we might have called it a "revival cinema" or even a "revival house." I visited the Avon Cinema website to check, but they don't call themselves anything but "The Avon Cinema." They are still there though, and still showing Grand Illusion and The Seventh Seal to each new class of first-year students at Brown, RISD, and to the odd townie.

I don't really know why I read this newsletter every week, but I do and I was surprised this week to see that Berhard Schlink is appearing on stage at the Lichtburg to read from his latest book, Sommerlügen. If I were in Essen now, instead of northern Utah, I would certainly be attending this event! Schlink is a great author and all-around clever guy. But in spite of my excitement, I find two things about this announcement disconcerting: first, I'm irritated to be missing an event I'm sure I would have enjoyed, and second the picture of Schlink makes him look uncommonly goofy.

I admire Schlink, but don't think I had ever seen a picture of him before. I'm not so shallow as to judge people only by their personal appearance, but I was sort of hoping the author of The Reader would radiate a little more gravitas. I've read almost everything he's written and in some cases the "reading" was actually listening to the novel read aloud on CD or tape, by the author himself. His voice sure didn't sound like the guy pictured above.

Schlink was trained as an attorney, but began writing in the late eighties with a detective novel called Selbs Justiz.  I didn't learn of his work myself until about 2001, when I read Der Vorleser for the first time. As most Americans probably know, the novel is about a teenager who has an affair with a woman in her thirties. She vanishes from his life when he graduates Gymnasium, but he meets her again, when as a part of his law training, he winds up attending her trial for war crimes. It's a fascinating book, with many of the attributes of detective fiction, but none of its drawbacks. The book became a bestseller both in Germany and the United States and was translated into 39 languages. It was the first German book to reach the number one position in the New York Times bestseller list.

So was I over reacting? Maybe the image in the Essenerfilmtheater newsletter wasn't so bad. I checked it again, and there was still something distinctly avian about Schlink's appearance. He looked like a seagull. No, an albatross. In fact he looked to me like that Disney character in the Rescuers Down Under. Wilbur.

I've heard it said that we dislike most in others, that part of them that reminds us of ourselves. As I looked for more images of Herr Schlink, my initial perception was confirmed. Most certainly bird-like, but he did begin to remind me more and more of myself. Mouth a little thin, nose somewhat beak-like. And like me, Schlink is probably a sterling fellow, in spite of not looking like a movie star. In fact, the best of us have flaws. One has only to think of Barak Obama's ears.

And the good news here is that the book Schlink will read from is a new one. He's retired from his position at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin now and maybe he'll have more time for writing. I'll look forward to reading the new book this summer, maybe while I'm back in Rhode Island. I really ought to check out the Avon cinema in Providence again too. With any luck, they'll be showing The Reader while I'm there and I'll be able to get my favorite balcony seat to relive old memories. I really ought to subscribe to their newsletter so I can keep up on the schedule.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

El Greco

When I'm in Germany I eat a lot of Turkish food. One of my favorite spots is Saka, just north of the Florastrasse stop on Rüttenscheiderstrasse. It's a combination dönerkebap and pizza place but the guys there also make up a traditional Turkish stew of one kind or another most nights, as an option to the standard offerings. It was my Stammdöner the last time I was in Essen for an extended visit and the guys behind the counter always had a friendly word for me and brought out a tea if the meal took a little longer to prepare than they thought was appropriate.

You don't see many Turkish places here in the states, but frankly the menu in most Greek places is pretty similar. And to an outsider, one who knows little or nothing about things Turkish, Greek or otherwise eastern Mediterranean, the cultures seem to have a great deal in common. I realize the Greeks and the Turks have sort of a thing going on for the past 4-500 years or so: genocide, atrocities, blah, blah...  but I just like the food. They both do great stuff with eggplant: where's the difficulty?

Last night I had the pleasure of dining in a nice Greek place in Sarasota FL. I'm attending a professional conference here and although I'm a firm supporter of the Arts, sometimes the party line gets a little extreme. Listening to some of our speakers, you'd think a decent painting would be proof against leprosy and a really good performance of Rigoletto would cure cancer. I needed a break from hyperbole, and this Greek place was perfect. The food was delicious, but what I loved even more was the spontaneous floor show. Not entirely spontaneous. There were musicians there: a keyboard guy with a drum track and his eighty four year old father on a balailika-like instrument called a bouzouki. They were good but were quickly joined by a vocalist and a monster bouzouki guy who remained very impassive while he poured out this music that had the place laughing, weeping, but mostly dancing. The vocalist didn't need much of a range of pitch to sing songs that went on for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, but he was a master at manipulating the microphone for great dynamic range.

Greek "homies" encourage a fellow dancer.
The dancing was equally impressive and alternated between line dancing and a kind of proto-break dance format. Men seem to dominate in the dancing, and they often squat and clap while each dancer takes a turn doing a solo thing. Apparently there is even a tradition of throwing a handful of dollars at the dancer, presumably if they are particularly good. After a lot of dancers had done their thing, they brought an infant out, barely able to stand, but damned if the kid didn't do a turn or two. He collected big time. I would have taken a turn myself, but it seemed that actually picking up the thrown money was somehow déclassé.

I was impressed with the dancing and with the music and the inclusiveness it demonstrated. These activities were clearly not reserved for the vituosi, but were instead open to the elderly, those not yet old enough to talk, as well as the accomplished. But when the guy in the wheelchair got into it, I thought, that rhetoric I'm hearing at my professional conference really is true: the Arts are in truth a powerful force for good. At the next conference I'll suggest we include the culinary in those other arts and see if I can get any support for a change in the by-laws.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Loki und Smokie

Loki Schmidt, the wife of former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, died at her home in Hamburg today at the age of 91. I don't think I've ever written anything about Frau Schmidt in this blog, although her husband Herr Schmidt has come up more than once. They were an interesting couple: they met in grade school, they both smoked like chimneys, and both lived extremely long and productive lives. They were (and Herr Schmidt still is) what many would refer to as "a hot ticket".

The first video is part of an excellent documentary about the Schmidts. The second is a parody of the two of them discussing the question of vaccination against the swine flu. Einfach genial.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


As I sat in my balcony seat at last night's performance of the Blind Boys of Alabama and Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, I couldn't help but contrast the attitude to the concert of my community in northern Utah, with the reception I imagine this act might have received in Germany. The audience here in Utah was enthusiastic and appreciative, but no one could deny, it was also small. Verily, a prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house. I think a similar concert, with two such giants of American Roots music, would have drawn a much larger audience in Germany, where people have a proper understanding of what's best about America, even if they are sometimes confused by our bizarre hand gun legislation.

On another note: the date of my last Forschungsjahr post before this one is August 9, 2010. That's over seven weeks ago: a shameful lapse on my part. I don't think a blog can endure that kind of neglect in the long term. My current position at the university requires a good deal from me and in the tension between available time and the demands of an unruly faculty, my blog is the loser.

I'm still writing the posts, but only in my head. It's the time for editing, proofreading and layout that's lacking. I'm committed to continuing my work with the blog, but for the time being, it could be that posts will have to remain short. I guess I'm lucky, in that, like the Blind Boys and Ralph Stanley, my audience is a dedicated one, however small. I hope you'll all bear with me as I get through this academic year, with the promise of lots of time for aimless rambling in the next.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Blue Bikes

I picked up my Aggie Blue Bike this morning and it's a gem.

An Aggie Blue Bike is a bike that a community member can rent from the Student Bike Center at Utah State University for a three month term, renewable pretty much as often as desired. The bikes are all used, some of them ill-used, but all have been lovingly rehabilitated by a dedicated student staff. Bike rental is free, but most people have to endure a tiresome online safety quiz before they can take possession of their bike. I was lucky enough to pick up my bike at a time when the apparently finicky system was "down". I'm a big believer in bike safety, but was grateful to have been spared that part of the bike rental process.

This kind of bike sharing is not entirely without controversy in the cycling community. Depending on whom you talk to, bike sharing isn't very effective in increasing the total number of bike trips in any given area. Many people feel that money being spent to develop new bike sharing programs like the metroradruhr program in the Ruhrgebiet, could be better used to improve bike infrastructure for riders. I re-visited this blog post at Ecovelo today and found a lot of the arguments against bike sharing to be fairly compelling. But I'm not convinced that any of those arguments are really relevant to the situation here on campus at Utah State. And in any case, I'm a bike sharer now, for better or for worse.

And these kinds of programs are growing in the US and in Europe too. Germany has had a nation-wide program in place for many years, sponsored by the Deutsche Bahn and very high tech. I don't know how successful it's been, but I can give anecdotal evidence that DB rental bikes sightings are becoming more common all the time. In many European cities, Barcelona and Paris, just for a few examples, large bike sharing programs are in place and the distinctive bikes are a familiar feature of the city center. Bike sharing is particularly big in the Ruhgebiet, as the map below demonstrates: the cluster of cyclist icons at the map center is the heart of the Ruhr, from Duisburg to Dortmund and each icon represents a bike sharing program. I've never used bikes in any of these programs, so I can't speak from personal experience, but I suspect that these bikes can only be really useful to a relatively small sector of the population.

Which brings me back to my Aggie Blue Bike. It's a clumsy monster of a bike and would hardly be useful for most of my riding purposes. But I plan to use it only on campus for those visits to places like the library, Student Union or our administration building. It's more than a fifteen minute walk across campus from my office and most of the way is level, paved and ideal for rolling along on big balloon tires. If bike sharing can ever make sense, then certainly this is the proper application. I'd like to see the program grow and serve more campus community members.

And I've got an even stronger, more personal reason for wanting the program to succeed: my Aggie Blue Bike is remarkably similar to the bike I learned to ride on nearly fifty years ago. I was only five at the time and needed to mount the bike near a fence or some other object I could climb on. My feet reached the pedals, but not the ground, so stopping could be a tricky maneuver. I needed to start up on a downhill run, and if my neighbor, Mr. Corr, was handy to give me a push, so much the better. But in many ways, it was the perfect bike for a kid. It was built like a Panzer and could be ridden at high speed right into a tree, house or car without any significant negative effect. It was a real looker too with a two tone red and white paint job and my dad used a stencil to paint my name on the chain guard. When I brought up this option with the USU Aggie Blue Bike staff members, they looked a little indignant, so I backed off. If I personalize the bike, I'll have to do it without their help.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Fort Wetherill

I spend a good deal of time thinking about the past. Not my own past so much as the Past, with a capital "P". It's particularly in your face here on Conanicut Island, where I'm spending a couple of weeks on summer vacation. I don't know if it's the pace of development, (slow) which leaves things like a Revolutionary War gun battery facing the West Passage up Narragansett Bay more or less unchanged after 200 years, or just the fact that lots of stuff happened here, but either way, I'm constantly being confronted here with History.

I took a spin around the island the other day on my Flevobike and wound up riding through the state park at the old Fort Wetherill. Wetherill faces Aquidneck Island (Newport) on the East Passage and has been an important part of the coastal defense of Narragansett Bay, like it's counterpart on the West Passage, since revolutionary times. I was struck by a photo on exhibit there that showed the fort as it was during World War II, when it was the site of an antisubmarine net that stretched across to Fort Adams on the Newport side. The net, or the structure that supported it, is clearly visible as a series of white dots that lead across the bay, with a gap at the center that allowed ships to pass. Most of the buildings in the photo are gone now, but several have been nicely restored. The antisubmarine net is gone as well, but scuba divers still explore the remnants.

The net was guarding Narragansett Bay from German U-Boats, quite likely U-boats made by Krupp, the Ruhrgebiet industrial giant so often sited as the greatest contributor to the industrial heritage currently being celebrated with the Kulturhauptstadt activities this year back in Essen. It's true the U-boats wouldn't have been manufactured in Essen: they were made at a separate plant in Kiel, many miles to the north. But I can't help but feel some irony about the whole thing. And looking at the big picture, it's hard not to come away with a sense of optimism about where the world is today.

I guess I'm hopelessly naive in my optimism, but it seems relatively harmless to me. I quite enjoy riding my bike around the island, and in previous years I've had as much fun riding the Industrial Culture Route in Essen, Duisburg, Dortmund and the like. My plan for world peace involves lots of similarly naive dummies who like to ride bikes around and mind their own business. It's got to be better than lots of hard headed realists who want to blown other people up. In all of my thinking about the past, I hope I've managed to develop some insights as well. I've been told those who can't learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. And looking at these photos make me think that would be a real drag.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Still-Leben A40

The average speed on the freeways of Los Angeles can be as low as 5 miles per hour during peak traffic periods, but that's nothing compared to the average speed on the A40 yesterday. The A40, or Ruhrschnellweg, as it is sometimes called, is the main Autobahn through the Ruhr region and yesterday it was closed from Duisburg to Dortmund as the entire Ruhrgebeit sat down to a 60 kilometer long Kaffeepause. Average speed never crept above zero as the classic German picnic benches and tables were stretched end to end and the Autobahn was closed to vehicular traffic for the whole day. Not everyone was sitting down though: 1 million of the 3 million estimated participants were there with bicycles and plenty were just walking or skating or running. It was the biggest and most talked about event of the Kulturhauptstadt Year and I'm sorry I missed it.

But I've got plenty of photos, videos and even a 3D virtual Kaffeetisch that WDR has put together to help me experience the event vicariously. And I'm not sure I could enjoy a gathering of 3 million people anyway. So, I'll check out the pictures online and download a video or two. Hope you enjoy them too.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Der Ball ist rund, das Spiel dauert vier Wochen

Not for our boys though. Spain played an amazing game and triumphed in the end. So... we have to set our sights on 2012 and the Europa Pokal. Something tells me interest in that one is likely to be even thinner in the bars and cafes of Logan, UT than the World Cup games were.

In 1990, Gary Lineker said, "Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win." Not this year Gary, not this year.

The celebration at Logan Country Club after Spain's win yesterday.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Two more for Klose as Germany rips Maradona's Argentina apart‎

I came away from today's match between Germany and Argentina with a couple of fairly strong impressions, but one stands out as a truth of überwältigende proportions: Mick Jagger looks like Death warmed over. Michael Ballack, on the other hand, is in great form, cheering from the sidelines as his team scored goal after goal against a team many thought would knock Germany out of the competition this year. And Angela Merkel, the German Kanzlerin who wrote the book on dowdy, was ecstatic in a trademark red blazer. Bill Clinton missed this match altogether.

Merkel needed a win badly after a very lackluster performance by her party's candidate for President of Germany in this past week's election. Yes, he won, but not by a very convincing margin. That couldn't be said for the National Eleven from Germany. They scored in the first three minutes to take an early lead, and then continued to rack up goals until, mercifully for Argentina, the final whistle blew at 90 minutes.

My companion and I picked another Logan bar this time, in the hopes of tracking down the elusive Utah soccer fans, but with no better luck. The only other warm bodies in the room were employees who floated through from time to time to ask what we were watching. If one is in need of some quiet time alone, it seems all one has to do is pick a bar in the United States that's playing a World Cup game.

An alert Forschungsjahr reader made me aware this past week of another important German contribution to the World Cup Culture with the Zeit video embedded below. In the stadia of South Africa, the average fan just bleats out a wavering drone-like tone, but leave it to the Germans to bring some organization to the playing of the vuvuzela. Enjoy the video and lay in a supply of Würstchen for the game on Wednesday.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Fußball in Amerika

I took time out today from my extremely busy schedule to watch a World Cup game between Deutschland and Ghana. I'm not much of a sports fan, but it's hard not to become involved in Fußball if you spend any time in Germany. I was a Yankee fan when I was 5, 6, and 7 years old, played football (very badly) in high school, and since 1994, I'm a periodic Fußball fan.

Isenberger Platz, Essen

My interest typically peaks every four years at the time of the World Cup and I believe what I find attractive about soccer at that time, is the intense excitement and camaraderie that surrounds the game. When I'm in Germany, I prefer to watch the games in Isenberger Platz, a small plaza not far from the center of downtown Essen. It's a tree-filled square with a children's playground at its center and a combination of apartment buildings, second hand stores and cafes and bars on the margins. For some reason, there is a distinct Dutch slant to a lot of the businesses and one pub in particular, De Prins, recreates the atmosphere of the Netherlands as far as they are able. When World Cup games are being televised, they mount a large screen facing the square at De Prins and a friendly crowd packs in, sitting on parked cars and folding chairs. I find the vibe there particularly gemütlich.

The vibe at the White Owl in Logan this afternoon was decidedly different. The game was on one of five different wide screen TV's with the sound down. Serbia vs Australia was playing just three feet to the left moving down the bar and some American baseball team was playing on another channel. My companion and I were essentially the only patrons at the bar, so the bartender had no problem turning the sound up for us.

The soccer crowd at the White Owl

In 2006 Ghana beat the US team in a game I watched at De Prins, but the German team dominated Ghana in today's game. The German team controlled the ball for most of the game but scored only once. Ghana was obviously frustrated by the uncanny ability Germany demonstrated to work as an organized unit, but Ghana players could really take advantage of a slip-up on the German side and they came close to scoring several times. Philipp Lahm made a couple of great saves and prevented Ghana from scoring, but the hero of the game for Deutschland will certainly be seen as Mesut Özil, who scored Germany's lone goal. I've got a soft spot in my heart for Özil, who came up through the Rot/Weiss Essen team† and now plays for Bremen.

The German win was exciting, but something seemed to be lacking at The White Owl. I listened to hear the bar patrons begin singing "Finale, whoa ooooo ooooo oooo!" a traditional response to a win back in Isenberger Platz, but the only sound was the bartender listlessly shifting glasses on the back bar. A couple of distracted customers wondered aloud if this win would be good or bad for the US: a rhetorical question not worth answering. I'm ready for Germany gegen England now, but I'll keep my expectations low regarding the team spirit evidenced by the tired rummies at the Owl. I'll either bring my own vuvuzela, or just keep a low profile. Either way, I'm hoping to be back in Essen for 2014.

†Essen's premiere soccer team, Rot/Weiss Essen has had another bad year and it's very existence is threatened now. On my recent visit to Essen, I was able ask the Bürgermeister what the future might hold for this club: "Sie müssen schon wieder in der Fünfte Liga absteigen. Sie müssen mühsam und Schritt für Schritt wieder aufsteigen." It's a sad day for an illustrious club with appparently no support coming from the Mayor's office.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Airport Culture

The difference between Germany and the US is nowhere so clear as in the airport terminal building. The German airport is quiet and calming. Video monitors are set to news channels, but without sound. At the Düsseldorf Flughafen, acoustics are set up to deaden sound with high ceilings that are painted black in the boarding lounges. While waiting for your flight, you can listen to the murmured conversations of people across the room. The only exceptions to the uniform dress-code of black alternating with gray, are blue jeans (which several Germans told me recently, don't count) and the Americans heading home in brightly colored T-shirts.

In American war films, the Germans were always shouting things like, "RAUS, RAUS!" to American POWs. But there's no shouting today at the German airport, not even in the usually intense security screening area. At American airports, the security screening crew always includes a few young men whose only job seems to be banging those gray tubs together while shouting "LAPTOPSOUTLAPTOPSOUT!" At the German airport, a well mannered employee asked me if I had any fluids in my bag, seeming to suggest that maybe my word would be enough to satisfy him.

On my arrival in Atlanta, I entered the large passport control room, prepared to navigate the maze of retractable belt stanchions. Huge signs in English gave conflicting instructions about which lines passengers should go into, but the signs were superfluous. An older woman who looked as though she was ready for a costume party dressed as a charwoman stood directly in front of the largest sign, waving her arms and repeatedly shouting,


The sound echoed in the cavernous space and I wondered how the non-native speakers could possibly understand her. I wondered, in fact, how the native speakers could understand her. I decided the waving arms were designed to encourage me to continue on past her and the big sign that read All Passengers with an arrow pointing to the right. Somehow we all managed to jump the hoops and continue on, into the pandemonium that reigns in the rest of the terminal.

During my four hour lay over in Atlanta, I decided to go into a restaurant where I could sit down. The cacophony was off the scale in this hole in the wall place of about 100 sq. meters. There were three huge TV screens, each tuned to a different channel. The one closest to me was less than eight feet away and an old guy was on, blaring at me about a new way to treat diabetes. But in spite of the volume, I couldn't hear a word he was saying. I was surrounded by single men in their early forties jabbering into their Blackberries. The wooden chairs in the restaurant were built with a sounding board Stradivarius would die for. Each time a customer pulled back away from the table, a deep rumble resonated from his or her chair, drowning out even the incessant beeping from those golf carts US airport employees drive around all day.

I ordered a beer from my waitress and she immediately responded with a counter offer: if I add a shot to that order, I can get it for only $3 more. I had already been up for twelve hours, but for the good people of Georgia, it wasn't yet noon: and they're already pushing boilermakers? I declined the bump, and then the waitress asked to see my ID. It seems Atlanta has a liquor control policy that rivals even the surreal code of the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. But maybe they know what they're doing. In a German airport, a beer is certainly enough to smooth over any anxiety or tension. But clearly, the American airport requires stronger stuff.

Sunday, May 30, 2010


There are lots of Americans on the streets of the Ruhrgebiet right now. Maybe it's the effect of the Kulturhauptstadt celebration going on this year, or it could have some other cause I'm not aware of, but they're impossible to miss in a crowd. There's something about the American accent that gives the voice a sharper edge. It cuts through a background pattern of other voices that blend easily with one another. And then there's the content. Americans prefer one phrase that I hear often when walking in a crowd and it's instantly recognizable:

"And I'm like..."

I never get to find out what they're like, because the conclusion to the phrase is optical, not aural. Presumably at the proper moment, the speaker makes a face of some kind to demonstrate just exactly what they are like. In a crowd of moving people, it's usually not possible to identify the speaker and satisfy my curiosity. I move through the crowd, knowing that I'm surrounded by people who are like something, but never knowing exactly what. It's just a little frustrating.

With Europeans speaking English this is never a problem. Since it's not their mother tongue, they haven't yet mastered the skills of discourse with a severely limited vocabulary. Where Americans can carry on a conversation for several minutes, cleverly limiting themselves to only a handful of words, Europeans are forced to fall back on a wide vocabulary. It was nowhere so clearly evident as in the Euro Vision Song Competition I watched last night on TV, televised from Oslo, a city where the citizenry is notorious for having to depend on a knowledge of grammar and vocabulary as a kind of coping skill in English.

I don't think the average American is aware of Euro Vision, but in Europe it's a monster event. What intrigued me about last night's performance was primarily the role that language played, and in particular, the English language. In the early years of the competition, it was understood that each country would perform in their own national language. Later, strict rules insured compliance. But in 1973, the rule was relaxed and that was the year ABBA won with Waterloo. The floodgates were officially opened on English and everyone got on board.

In last night's performance, well more than half of the singers performed in English and it clearly demonstrated a curious fact: English speaking countries are no longer leading the way when it comes to grammar and pronunciation development. These aspects of language are always in flux, and previously they shifted according to trends within the regions where English was spoken as a primary language. I believe now, foreign speakers are influencing English more than we are.

The German entry to this year's competition, Satellite, sung by the 18 year old sensation from Hannover, Lena, is a good example of this trend. Lena speaks beautiful English, (hampered as she is by a too large vocabulary and a lot of useless knowledge of grammar) but her pronunciation is naturally not that of a native speaker. When she sings, she subtly shifts the stress in certain words, or alters the glottal stop in others, creating a pattern that's a little tricky for me to understand. But the fact is, it sounds great. The words are slurred and inflected in a way that comes across as innovative and really appealing. Satellite is a little too "Pop" oriented for my tastes, but no one could deny that it's catchy. Plus, Lena's somewhat spastic stage presence was a welcome relief from the schmaltzy, over produced performances of some other contestants. (Yes, I'm thinking about Russia here.) It was a fact recognized by the voting public: Lena won in a landslide.

Lena interviewed after her win by Norwegian media cyborg, Erik Solbakken.

As the voting was announced last night from the capitals of Europe, I believe I'm correct in saying that the only country that did not give its results in English, was, predictably, France. Which puts the French in the odd position of having about as much influence over the shaping of spoken English as we have in America. Like the French, we Americans speak as little English as possible. We like to stick with one verb tense, (when was the last time you heard someone say "And I have been like...." or "I would have been like...?" ) a handful of simple words and many of us have abandoned adjectives and verbs almost entirely. Meanwhile, our language sails on without us, growing all the while. I can imagine a time when many of us won't be able to understand spoken English at all. And how does the average American feel about that? They're like... "Whatever?"

Their apathy is probably attributable to a blind faith in the power of the American Pop Cultural Juggernaut. It seems to roll over everything in its path and always triumphs in the end. It probably will in the case of spoken English too, in spite of my concerns. It certainly didn't escape my notice that in this competition, which is closed to non-Europeans, it was an American, Julie Frost, who co-wrote the winning song with the Dane, John Gordon. I admire the French for their courage, but I hope they're buying shares in Disney. Enjoy the video.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

La Fura dels Baus

I was in Duisburg Ruhrort on Thursday evening for the opening of the Duisburger Akzente, a festival of cultural events, and I enjoyed a performance by La Fura dels Baus, a Catalonian dance/theater troop known for spectacular interactive performances. Thursday night's event didn't disappoint, even with the Kulturhauptstadt media machine in overdrive.

And yesterday I experienced another event planned for the Pfingsten weekend: yellow hot air balloons that float above the Ruhrgebiet, marking the site of each former coal mining shaft. I was at the Landschaft Park to witness the spectacle and I expected to see the whole of the Ruhrgebiet spread out before me, dotted here and there with hundreds of bright yellow spheres. What I hadn't reckoned with: the Ruhrgebiet is flat as a pancake; there's plenty of smog even with the industry mostly gone; the balloons were fairly small and they only went up about 80 meters. The result was a little disappointing when viewed from the Aussichtsturm at the Park.

I'm sure it was exciting for those who were releasing the balloons at the various mines, and probably it looked pretty cool from an airplane. But from any given earth-bound point in the Ruhrgebiet, it was a little less spectacular than the hype may have suggested. The photo above, taken from the top floor of the Essen Rathaus looking north toward Zeche Zollverein, shows the event to better effect.

The Akzente, on the other hand, was everything it was cracked up to be and more. Newspapers report that over 80,000 people came to the Mecatorinsel in Duisburg to view the show and it's unlikely that any went home less than satisfied. Two huge cranes lifted the performers high into the air and they swung out over the audience, lit by a combination of colored lights, projected images and enough fireworks to celebrate Independence Day in even the most pyrotechnically inclined of US cities. Supposedly, the performance entitled Global Reingold, was an homage to Gerhardt Mercator, who was born and lived in Duisburg (who knew?) and Wagner, but with angels flying overhead and a sixty foot high marionette giving birth in the crowd, it was hard to keep the conceptual aspect of the work straight. When the puppet's water broke, there just wasn't time for deconstruction: we all broke and ran. My shirt wasn't completely dry until I arrived home in Essen well after midnight.

Friday, May 7, 2010


I've been a Facebook member for less than a year and find the experience pretty underwhelming. But if actions speak louder than words, then I guess I'm still enjoying it at some level, since I'm still a member. I check my Facebook page everyday for a while, then I'll forget about it for a week. When I'm logged on, I might troll around in other people's photo albums, just to see what they're up to, and when I do, I'm invariably astounded at how many "friends" my "friends" have. I'm hovering around 140. But several people I know on Facebook have "friend lists" that run to four digits.

I read today in Die Zeit that Friedrich Nietzsche has nearly 150,000 "friends." I never even thought of the guy as being that outgoing. That Goethe has 23,070 "friends" comes as no surprise, but I was shocked to find that Heinrich Böll has only 714. Then I remembered, I only have 140. Sartre has 57,033; Camus 37,227; Astrid Lindgren has 77,291. How far do I have to look before I can find an author with fewer "friends" than I have? J. K. Rowling has 30,374 and Gunther Grass has 1848. Most of those so called "friends" have probably never even read his famous play, Death in Venice.

So how do I pump up my own stats? I'm starting to get "friended" by some interesting people I don't already have any contact with, but I've been reluctant to commit to a real "friendship." It's obvious that they're serious people, since they only accept "friends" who are over 18. I guess they don't want to waste their time with a bunch of teeny boppers. If I want to grow my "friend" base, I guess I'll have to take the plunge, maybe with Treena, who promises to show me pictures of her new piercing if I "friend" her. Then I could "friend" all of Treena's "friends." I don't think I'll ever surpass Nietzsche, but it would be nice to at least to pull even with Hitler. I mean, the guy is the most evil dictator the world has ever known and at 457, he's got almost four times the number of "friends" I've got.

Or maybe I should just make the jump to Twitter.