Category Archives: Germany

So Long, Goodbye, Auf Wiedersehen, Adieu

To this day there is something illusionistic and illusory about the relationship of time and space as we experience it in traveling, which is why whenever we come home from elsewhere we never feel quite sure if we have really been abroad.

W.G. Sebold, Austerlitz

And with that, I find myself come full circle.  What began with a seven-hour layover at Newark Airport ends in a seven-hour layover at Newark Airport.  It’s an odd feeling being back here, as though this year never really happened.  It doesn’t feel as though I just lost a city; it doesn’t feel like I will never watch the boats go by on that bit of the Rhine again; it doesn’t even feel like I can confidently speak again – a few people ventured a safe small talk conversation starter, and I just sucked.  Blatantly.

I was thinking about this on the plane ride over – how, if this year already just feels sort of dreamlike, what did I really take away from it?  Resume filler, sure; a working knowledge of German (which, two hours into America, I already feel slipping), of course.  But what I think it really comes down to is this: I learned how to be independent.  I navigated German bureaucracy, a school system, foreign cities.  I talked to police, to a newspaper reporter, to students, and I found myself for the first time on the other side of the great student/teacher divide, which was exhilarating, frightening, frustrating, and rewarding all at once.

But more than that, I learned how to be completely and utterly dependent: I relied on the teachers at my school for so, so much – that they would take me into their classrooms and often, their homes.  They found my own apartment for me, showed me around the area, lent me furniture, gave me late-night rides back home, and opened up a side of the culture I never would have known about otherwise.  I relied on homefolk to keep me sane.

I think I also learned a bit about appreciation, and I don’t mean of fine wines (although I did plenty of that this year, just more in a “Mmm, I like white wine” moreso than in a “this has a hint of oak and finishes with a bouquet of raspberry blossoms and midnight rain” sort of way).  You know that phrase, “Expect the best, prepare for the worst”?  Well, my own personal take on that is “Expect the worst, panic about every foreseeable scenario in which things go wrong to Joe.”  If a plane can be cancelled, it will be.  If my paycheck is late, it’s not coming at all.  And so (by my mentality), in a year where so much could have gone wrong, I learned how to be so thankful of what didn’t go wrong: Joe still likes me.  I never had a health issue and had to figure out insurance/German medical system.  Friends and family came to visit.  Fulbright didn’t kick me out for not living up to their standards and send me home in disgrace.  I happened to be placed in the same tiny town with Beth, who became one of my best friends.  So far, my flights haven’t been cancelled.

Also, I learned how to spend obscene amounts of free time alone, which  means, by extension, I am now really, really good at Minesweeper.

And if I can do 67 seconds without a mouse, I shudder to think what I'll do with one.

But back to the thankfulness thing.  I wanted to, in conclusion of my year and of my blog, thank you all for showing some interest in my year.  I hope you enjoyed the blog; I definitely enjoyed knowing you were reading  – but not as much as I’ll enjoy getting to see you and speak good ol’ American English with you, which I’m sure we’ll do soon.

As a side note  (or more accurately, as an end note), I wore my Razorback shirt today, feeling it was appropriate, and I’m not sure what I was expecting: that I’d land and some stranger at the airport would be like “Hey, Woo Pig, am I right?” and then we’d like, chest bump or whatever it is that sports fans do, but instead, here’s what my homecoming was: one lady eyed me and I could tell she wanted to comment on my shirt, but instead of an “Oh, did you go to the U of A?” it was a “Were you by chance in Tuscany?  We saw shirts like that for sale there.”  And then the guy at passport control glanced at my passport, and said “Lori from Ar-Kansas, welcome back.”

It was just the way my German students pronounce it, which made me smile – I felt like it was a farewell to Germany and a hello to the USA all at once.

With the other Fulbrighters from Rheinland-Pfalz on a Ferris Wheel at Johannisfest in Mainz last weekend

One final "Zum Wohl" on the Rhine with Bethlein

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Bingen: The Good, the Bad, and the Really Really Ugly

Bingen welcomed me back in September with Winzerfest, a weekend of wine stands set up in the streets that made every weekend afterwards make me wonder why they don’t keep wine stands set up all the time, and this weekend, the city bid me adieu with Bingen Swingt, a Riverfest-esque festival celebrating all music that is anything but German: swing, Latin jazz, poodle skirt-era rock n’ roll, Frank Sinatra.  This leads me to believe that at its heart, Bingen is a charming and genial place that wants nothing but the best for me, and on top of that, it can be downright beautiful.  The gardens are beautiful, the steeples pinned against a sky blue sky are too, and when church bells are sounding or the sun is going down over the Rhine Valley while I’m drinking a glass of wine on the riverfront, I could almost swear there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.

But then there’s another side.  The dark underbelly to a city that loves 3 pm coffee and cake, hikes on the weekends, and Rieslings with late dinners, a side not immediately apparent when you’re overwhelmed by river views and so many ice cream shops.  It’s surprising, yes, but it can also be tasteless.  It can be creepy.  It can be straight up ugly as sin, and I’m not the sort that uses phrases like “straight up” lightly.

I’m talking about the shop windows.

This lovely selection of dresses is not in the window of a dress shop, oh no, but a hair salon.

This glasses shop, which now flaunts a street sweeper/crossing guard theme, went with a bunch of plaster pelicans earlier in the year, a bold choice.

A giant cracked heel and foot products grace this display.

Beth and I have made a game out of "If you had to pick one outfit from this window, which would you choose, and justify your answer in 500 words or fewer" with this shop.

Bambi here moves too, in jerky movelements, a la the Showbiz animatronic band.

I will not be sad to see these go.

And with that last insider’s guide to Bingen, I guess it’s time for you to go too.  I’m not quite done with the blog, but I’m done with Bingen; hope you liked my little laundromat-less city on the Rhine and enjoyed getting to know a little bit about Germany that’s not Berlin or Munich.  See you in the coming days – both here, and well, back home!

Idiomatic Monday: Wurst Will Be Wurst

I suppose it doesn’t take much of a grasp on semiotics to realize that culture will, come hell or high water, weasel its way into language, thus spawning idioms, but I’m here to tell you anyway.  For instance, what springs to mind when you think of America?  Maybe I’m coming out of left field, but if I were to take a swing at it, I’d say baseball.  (See what I did there?  Seriously, there’s a wikipedia page about this).  German is a whole ‘nother ballgame: when you think of the Vaterland, do you think of, say, this?:

Somewhere in that ballpark?

If so, you’re not way off base (alright, done with this) because happily, beer and wurst has had the baseball effect on the German language.  Take, for example:

An ihm ist Hopfen und Malz verloren
Hops and malt are lost on him = he doesn’t have a clue

Das ist nicht mein Bier
That’s not my beer = that’s not my cup of tea

Es ist mir Wurst
It’s sausage to me = it’s all the same to me

Seinen Senf dazugeben
To give his mustard = to put in his two cents

Jetzt geht’s um die Wurst
It’s about the sausage now = it’s do or die

In der Kürze liegt die Würze
Rick Steves translates this phrase this way: “In the shortness lies the tastiness” regarding the miniature Nuremberg sausages, but that’s an awkward translation, because really, who talks that way?  If you’re going to translate a colloquialism, translate it colloquially… so clearly:  “Boy howdy, these wee sausages pack a punch.”  (Incidentally, I also saw this phrase screen printed on a pair of men’s underwear in a tacky souvenir shop, which turned me off of the German language forever).

and the favorite of German professors everywhere:

Spiel nicht die beleidigte Leberwurst
Don’t play the offended liver sausage: don’t get your panties in a twist like I just did about a Rick Steves translation of a sausage saying.

The Very Beleidigte Leberwurst

Which leads us, ultimately, to this question at the intersection of food and baseball:

If the moon was made of spare ribs, wouldja eat it?

Aprilwetter

In Arkansas (and probably every other state in the Union, but we all like to think we’re exceptional), we’ll tell any non-native who can discern words in our thick-as-molasses accents that if they don’t like the weather, they can just wait five minutes and it’ll change.  From what I’ve been hearing, this hasn’t exactly been the case this year – if you wait another five minutes, you’ll just get more rain.  So, then, if global weather patterns are any indication, it seems old wive’s tales have followed me to Germany, because while you all back home have been getting nothing but rain, I’ve been enjoying nothing but sunshine. And rain. And wind. And thunderstorms.  All in the course of an afternoon, and usually, but not necessarily, concurrently.  And if I wait five minutes, it’ll probably change.

I was talking to a teacher here about how this beautiful/gloomy/beautiful/violent weather we’ve been getting is really crimpin’ my style (I took it as a sign of the end times, but guess that turned out to be a fluke), and he said they have a word for when the sun shines while it’s raining: Aprilwetter.  Turns out, then, it has nothing to do with me taking the weather with me, nor even with the apocalypse; this unpredictability is exactly what to predict come this time of year.

And so this brings me to today’s cheap metaphor, because what is my English major good for, if not for cooking up obvious and half-baked analogies?

And so, let’s see how this pans out: this “April weather” (granted, a month late) is the perfect sort of weather for mirroring that bittersweet feeling you get at the end of anything – a school year, a summer, a chocolate bar, or as the case may be, a year abroad. I’m so ready to move on and get back home, but there’s also a certain sadness to leaving this behind.  This was supposed to be my year of finding myself, of being young and free and a stranger in a strange land, of drinking strange alcohols and eating rich breads, of picking up a second language and travelling before I get set in my ways and saddled with responsibilities.  Okay, and teaching.  And, to an extent, that is what happened, but really, what this year did was a little less Under the Tuscan Sun; when it comes down to it, what this year did best was confirm things I already knew: I love my boyfriend (there! I said it!) and long distance relationships are sucky, sucky things; I want to go into library science, despite the job market being a sucky, sucky thing; I love barbeque and American ales more than wurst and Rieslings (there! I said it!).  I’ll miss it here, but I’m ready to get back. It’s raining while the sun is shining.

Obvious metaphor, over and out.

Family Ties

I, like all other women everywhere, have a notoriously bad sense of direction.  Joe makes fun of and, I think, dreads my tried-and-trusted-just-enough-for-me-to-keep-using-it “General Direction Theory,” in which, when placed behind the wheel of a car, I just feel the way to go.  It’s a very intuitive, almost spiritual practice, which you probably wouldn’t understand, what with your GPS systems and your maps.

This is why I was pleased to find myself placed, eight months ago (why isn’t my German better?!), in a small town practically made to be navigated by GDT, thanks to a plethora of prominent landmarks.  Need to get to the train station?

Ganked from Ross.

Just walk towards the river.  Need to get to the other train station?  Just walk towards the other river.  My favorite restaurant?  Right below that steeple.  My school?  Take a left at the castle.  My house?  Over the vineyard, and beside a second steeple.  I’m generally not the one to be trusted when your goal is to reach a destination, but with my family’s arrival looming, I was ready.  I was ready to impress them with my  knowledge of which cemeteries you can cut through to get to the Old Town, which windy alleyways and pedestrian tunnels you can use to get to the gardens, how I hand-picked our hotel thanks to its proximity to an ice cream shop.  “We have trained her well,” my parents would say to each other over very conveniently located ice cream.  “She is now ready to make her way in the world.”

Then we left Bingen.  Vienna is not like Bingen.  Plus, we had a car, which is not like a train.  The next two weeks, then, were marked by referencing and cross-referencing guide books (five of them), sorting through maps, guessing at what impenetrable street signs might mean, continually losing and finding each other, blind stabs at which way our restaurant might be, trying to follow the conflicting demands of both (both!) of our GPS systems, long train trips to remote city suburbs, trying to find a parking garage that always seems to be at the wrong end of a one-way street, and lots and lots of this:


I could wax poetic about how being lost is one of the best parts of travelling, life being about the journey and not the destination and all that, but eh, it’s not.  It’s really just sort of aggravating, not to mention time-consuming.  Still, it does have its moments; take Baden-Baden.

Baden-Baden is the town my family came from, and so when the whole crew (all nine of us) were gathered one night in Bingen, we made the decision over late-night conveniently-located ice cream to take a day trip there, guided by nothing but a sense of familial ties, hoping to find something.  I’m not sure what sign we were looking for – a statue to our great-great grandfather, clearly a town hero?  commemorative plaques?  our long-lost family, still dressed like Old World immigrants, unable to communicate with us but so pleased to find us that we’d spend a pleasant dinner together, and lacking conversation, we’d bob our heads and beam at each other over heaping plates of homemade schnitzel and spaetzle?

This did not happen, but what we did find upon our arrival (and after getting lost and hopelessly separated, and after weaving through all sorts of detours just for kicks) was a pristine spa town, too rich for our blood, which is probably why our blood left for America.  Once reunited, our GDT fully engaged, we headed off in the direction of the main cemetery in town, thinking this would be our best chance of finding some hint of a Binz.  Seven of us wandered through town and climbed single-file up the

Lacking a camera, this is the closest approximation I can get to what my family's search for our genealogical roots looked like.

long, steep hill to where the cemetery perched, lamenting in between wheezes that all our cameras were either lost, broken, or dead by that point in the trip, because it was gorgeous.  The cemetery was a  labyrinth of well-tended plots,  blooming with flowers I had never seen, the massive trees filled with birds, and with lovely Black Forest views.  My family fanned out in a blind search, part pilgrimage, part scavenger hunt.  We found nothing, and our hopes were double dashed when we talked to lady at the office who said that much of the cemetery had been reused to accommodate for those who had died in WWII, and furthermore, she said the cemetery was used largely for “how do I say this… high society.”  Not our family, being the implication.

So we didn’t find what we were looking for, but we at least found something new to contribute to family lore – we have the satisfaction of knowing that our family stretches back to a lovely little spot in Germany, and maybe we wandered the streets that they did, and saw the church they attended, and passed the shops selling Versace that they also couldn’t afford, and sat where they sat prosting with their own family, complaining about the same overpriced restaurants.

Prost!

Baby Berlin

So, my hiatus has lasted long enough.  I should have things to say.  I’ve been to Berlin and to Copenhagen since last we met, both wonderful places that I now associate with wonderful memories – an incredibly generous conference/hotel/all-you-can-eat buffet every night provided by Fulbright, no shortage of good food and sightseeing and company, a handful of speeches given by important people including the mayor of Berlin herself, and for real, Copenhagen is the scientifically-proven most beautiful city in the world.

And one of the windiest.

And most expensive.  And home to the most incomprehensible language that closely resembles but is most definitely not German ever conceived by man.

But actual events overwhelm me, and I don’t ever know how to approach them when it comes time to blog about them, which is probably the single suckiest quality I could have as a blogger; that’s why I prefer to stick solely to non-events and non-happenings, like trips to the grocery store and comparing Europe to Harry Potter way too often.  I think this aversion to the big topics stems from the boatload of English papers I’ve completed, the goal of which was always to narrow, narrow, narrow that topic down.

My English degree has made me a uninteresting writer.  Wouldn’t it just.

Anyway, so rather than tackling the real Berlin (I saw museums; I heard speeches, I “networked”), I’m going to tackle something much more manageable: Baby Berlin.

You see, when I first got to Germany, I was a bit overwhelmed (or underwhelmed?  Just plain old regular flavor whelmed?) by how, well, not difficult to navigate it was.  Sure, there are trains you can ride; sure, you can ride a bike here without the crushing fear of being crushed by SUVs on the rampage; sure, there are bakeries on corners and pedestrians in city centers – but adjusting to life here did not demand that I reorient myself to my world.  I didn’t need to change change, I just had to tweak here and there, when it comes down to it.

And so at first, I noticed mostly the funny Americanisms that Germany displayed.  Ben and Jerry’s sold at the hot dog place; Lady Gaga on the radio.  When you’re away, similarities jump out at you, while a lot of the differences are much more subtle, and so noticing them came later, and are still coming, in slow, cumulative waves – a sense of a different approach to politics, a different aesthetic, different ways of greeting and different circumferences of personal space bubbles.  It’s a slightly altered normal, but it’s definitely a different normal.

That’s what struck me when I left my apartment yesterday.  Two girls were playing in the driveway in front of my house.  They had drawn “Berlin” on the pavement with sidewalk chalk, and were busy riding up and down what I can only assume to be Unter den Linden with their scooters.

It makes me smile every time I pass it (and by pass it, I mean stay on the right side of their chalked-on road, and adhere to the rules of their tiny roundabouts – I dare you to walk by this and not fight the urge to do the same) because I remember doing exactly the same thing with sidewalk chalk in the cul-de-sac outside my house growing up.  The idea is the same – a miniature of our respective worlds – but not the execution: I drew, naturally, what was normal to me, just as these girls drew what’s normal for them.  In other words, where they draw roundabouts, crosswalks, and bakeries, I drew drive-through Baskin Robbins.

Which somehow isn’t quite so charming.

Dressed to the Elevens

I know we’re already several days into the throes of Lenten sacrifice, but I still feel some (admittedly belated) explanation of Carnival season is in order.

Halloween was doable – Pagan roots aside, most Halloween-related things here are just borrowed from contemporary American traditions anyway, only sans candy corn.  Christmas, too, was manageable.  Sure, they’ve got Knecht Ruprecht, bringer of coal lumps to naughty children, but it still translates transatlantically, and besides, Germany at Christmastime is how we love to imagine our own Christmases – snow-covered timbered houses, villagers gathering around drinking mulled beverages, the smell of gingerbread and cinnamon on the air.

But this?  This time of  year was simply bewildering.  Mardi Gras aside, Carnival always seemed so foreign, so exotic, so European; it seems I’m at a loss when a holiday hasn’t been reclaimed by American traditions.  The name alone is grounds for confusion – what’s Mardi Gras back home (or Pancake Day in England) is Carnival, Karneval, Fastnacht, Fasching, Fassenacht, Fasnet here; for the sake of clarity, I use these terms arbitrarily and interchangeably throughout this post, for which you’re welcome.  Where we Americans outside of New Orleans celebrate maybe with a king cake and, if we’re feeling especially festive, a few beads around our neck on a certain Tuesday forty days before Easter, here, it’s a season that lasts an inexplicably huge chunk of the year, topped off by a week of drunken costumed revelry and parading, and the whole thing seems an inextricable mess of religious/political/end-of-winter entanglements.  Even the colors are different.  I didn’t know what to make of it.

But, as luck would have it, I find myself in the very heartland of German Carnival celebration, and so I feel I have to take it upon myself to, to the extent that I am able, wrap my little Mardi-Gras-means-King-Cake-and-Zydeco-centric mind around this apparently inexplicable and inextricable season.  So let’s unpack:

I think we’re familiar enough with the idea that this time period is one last chance to eat our weight in sweets and meats before somber ol’ Lent settles in (the word “Carnival” itself stems from the Latin for “see you on the flip side, meat!”), so I won’t go into that bit, so I’ll start here: the main idea behind all of this is that Carnival celebrates an overturning of all forms of hierarchy – political, religious, gendered; hierarchies which are expected to return on Ash Wednesday, pronto.

Dating back to the Middle Ages, common folk established their own government, under the protection of masks and costumes, to mock their own none-too-beloved rulers, celebrating with displays of excess, just as their own darling courts were so wont to do.  Royalty themselves joined in, drawing new roles at random, and the court was turned upside down, the prince elector becoming the cup-bearer.  The jester ruled the court, and this idea continues today: a Carnival Prince and Princess are elected (in some places, even “ruling” from the town hall).  The Mainz parade is especially political, with many of its floats serving as sort of grotesque rolling political cartoons, and throughout the season, there are a series of Sitzungen, meetings that provide a platform for comedians to poke fun at all things political.

One such politically-motivated floats, and one of the only ones I could understand. There's no flashing for beads at Fastnacht, but that doesn't mean there's no flashing.

French rule in the 19th century just meant someone new to mock, and the parade continues to be a celebration of freedom from foreign rule: the Carnival colors (blue, white, red, and yellow) are a bastardization of the bleu-blanc-rouge, and even now, parade participants and onlookers alike dress like French royalty and military – just with flowers stuffed down the barrels of their guns.

French and German stereotypes collide in incredible ways at Fastnacht.

The French came into play in another significant way: not only did they (unwittingly) supply their national colors to this chaos, they also lent their national motto.  Carnival season officially begins on November 11 at 11:11, which is cute, sure, but also (of course) symbolic.  For one, it’s St. Martin’s Day.  For two, eleven, in German, is Elf, a word which conveniently also serves as an acronym for égalité, liberté, and fraternité, the rallying cry of the masses during the French Revolution.  To complicate matters further, November 11 is also Armistice Day, which is also commemorated at 11 a.m.  I’m sure more surmises regarding power relations could be drawn here, but frankly, I’m getting exhausted researching this (if only you could see how many browser tabs I have open.  To give you an idea, it’s more than eleven).  So! Many! Layers! Mind! Exploding!

The Catholic Church is also not immune to ridicule, especially considering its role in, oh, every aspect of life during the Middle Ages, and in fact, it’s not even immune to that ubiquitous eleven.  It’s said that the eleven, in religious terms, refers to the little-known eleventh Commandment, “Thou shalt have a good time” – the Germans’ own Laissez les bon temps rouler.

Real quick, but worth a mention, gender roles also make the big fliperoo.  The Thursday before Ash Wednesday is a day called Weiberfastnacht – Women’s Fastnacht – or Altweiberfastnacht – Old Women’s Fastnacht (gee thanks), wherein women are allowed to destroy that symbol of chauvinism and glass ceilings and bread winning and injustice to the fairer of the sexes etcetera etcetera etcetera, the tie.  Men, always a step ahead, often wear their older, crappier ties in anticipation of getting them cut in half by feminists, or something like them.

I suppose, though, that’s the most complicated aspect of this whole ordeal: jesters become the ruling class, the middle class ridicules the aristocracy, otherwise observing Catholics celebrate the hedonistic lifestyle, paisley feels the wrath of women with scissors, hierarchy everywhere seems upturned and chaos reigns – but only because the hierarchy, with a wink and a nod, allows it to happen.  The masses rebel, but within expected parameters, and so it only functions as one more means of control, and that’s the craziest phenomenon of all.

Well, that, and the phenomenon of black face, which is somehow still an accepted – and popular – costume in these parts.

Not a picture of black face, true, but still - can you DO this?

Or for that matter, this?

And, just when you thought this post was wrapping up, I find I can’t stop.  But this time, factoids will come with bullet points, so you know there’s no thesis to go along with this trivia.

  • The parade in Mainz came with its own German flair; some floats flung candy, sure, but there was also a good share of pretzel, cheese, and sausage tossing.
  • There’s also a definite regional difference in Fastnacht celebrations within Germany.  The Mainz celebrations tend to be more political; the ones in Cologne tend more towards humor.  Additionally, being in the wine region, many of the floats were wine-themed, and, yes, poured out wine instead of throwing candy.
  • Every year, the Fastnacht season has a new designated slogan.  This year’s:

Egal was kommt
Egal was ist,
Der Mainzer Narr
bleibt Optimist!

or

It doesn’t matter what comes,
It doesn’t matter what is,
The fool from Mainz
remains an optimist!

  • In the absence of high school marching bands (and what an absence that is), the parade is awash in Guggemusik.  Each band is dressed all scary-like, for which I  have no explanation.
  • The Mainz parade always ends with a giant duck float, which is a play on the German word for duck, Ente, and end, Ende.  In that spirit: