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.