Saturday, January 31, 2009

16th century "Where's Waldo?"

This was painted by Pieter Brueghel the Younger sometime in the late 1500s or early 1600s. Can you find the people playing Eisstockschissen?

the words

German has a word for to forget. So I don't know why this happens, perhaps it's colloquial, or has to do with usage rather than literal meaning. But it's happened to me several times where I'm talking with someone and they can't think how to say what they want to say, and they pause, and then tell me, "I miss the words."

I want to say, I miss them too! Repugnant, chartreuse, cataclysmic, trickling, dross, unwieldy, dregs, disconsolate, ampersand, elusive, prognosticate, hyperbole, circumscribed, pastoral, antediluvian, prelapsarian, heteronormative, concupiscent, seredipitous. I'm off on one iceberg, they're off on another, and we are both slowly melting.

I miss the words.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


Something I never understood or suspected, never having sat and watched the snow fall, was how graceful it can be, how balletic. How slow, feathery. Pillows in a gentle explosion from an unknown height.

If I didn't need to go to work, I'd watch it for hours.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Did I mention that I learned how to play this odd and fascinating Bavarian winter sport? It's some kind of cross between bacce ball and bowling. On ice. And the pieces you use look like giant Sorry! pieces. More importantly, old Bavarian men still wear those hats on a regular basis, to the bakery, to the post office, to buy the paper.

It was surprisingly fun. I want to go again! Who's with me?!

Monday, January 26, 2009

nie prawda

At first glance, it looks like a vodka ad. Sure. But look again. It's clearly a subliminal message for Callan English!

text: (top) Why is this top model giving her friend Pravda Vodka?
(bottom) The top model is giving Pravda Vodka because she is knowledgeable...

(especially) for Jamie

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Janus and my habiliments

I remember reading years ago (but where?) that often when relationships don't work out, those involved cite as the cause the very qualities that drew them to their partner in the first place. Thus, he's so organized becomes he's rigid and can't be spontaneous; she's in touch with her inner child turns into she's immature. I think there's something of this love/hate duality with travel to and life in a foreign country as well. Many of the things which are exciting - a new language! foreign customs! a different style of daily life! - have as their other half something daunting, confusing, or frustrating - I don't speak the language! I don't know the customs! all the &^*$ing stores are closed on Sundays! The sizes of things change: pants, shoes, bras. There are tetrapaks everywhere. Muffins are available but tasteless. Sourdough is gone. Cheddar is rare.

Not to mention the question of where to buy things. For a USAmerican, this is pretty much always a problem. In the States, you can buy almost anything you need almost anywhere you go. The question is not where must I go to buy vitamins, duck tape, tomatoes, hand lotion, blank CDs, or underwear, but to which of the many, many stores, all nearby, which probably carry all of the aforementioned items and more would I like to go? For although I have never purchased underwear at say, Safeway, I would be enormously surprised if it couldn't be found there. The difficult things, however, are not the day-to-day necessities (toilet paper, stamps, carrots, socks), which can be found using pretty much the same logic you would use in the U.S.: toilet paper = drug store, stamps = post office, carrots = grocery store, socks = clothing store (and in Germany, also at the drug store! There's a more than slight U.S. influence here). What is a challenge are the various and sundries, the things you might need to buy only once or twice, but which you really do need. One more or less eternal difficulty:

Clothes hangers.

When I lived in Florence, my bedroom had a closet. It contained about five hangers. No problem, I thought, I'll just go buy some more. Yet after days of searching, they were not to be found in a drug store (which they don't really have in the U.S. sense in Florence anyway, they only have pharmacies), a grocery store (of course not! you can't eat them!), or any of the other odds-and-endsy type stores I investigated. In the end, in despair, I entered a small electrical shop. Just off the main square, it sold fancy designer lamps and lighting fixtures. I asked them if they knew where I could buy clothes hangers. They did not. But then man asked me to wait a moment. He climbed a ladder up to the attic of the store, and brought down some wire hangers, which he sold to me for a reasonable price. In my nine months in Florence, this was the only time I encountered hangers for sale.

In Krakow, I'm not sure if I ever succeeded in locating them (a special note to Kasia: I'm sure they are available in a perfectly logical place; however, herein lies the core of my problem: it seems to me that logic is not always cross-cultural, and that these things do not always translate across borders. Logic seems to be local, it seems to have a language. I often fail to speak or understand it). Luckily it didn't matter, because my boss at work was kind enough to give me some.

Here in Munich I encountered them accidentally. I was at a used furniture store, which perhaps would be better described as the used furniture store, and saw a box of used hangers for sale. At the time, I didn't have a closet. Now that I have succeeded in purchasing a lovely, wonderfully cheap and blissfully lightweight (my apartment is on the third floor, no elevator) clothes rack, I think I will go get some.

I have no intention of arguing that the U.S. style of one-stop-shopping to which I am accustomed is superior, or even preferable, to the multi-stop many-shop structure more common elsewhere. I don't necessarily think that this is at all the case. If anything, perhaps it has weakened our social survival skills, and limited our ability to reason by extension. In the urban jungles of Europe, we United Statesians are not the tigers. In our confusion and genial awkwardness, we may well be capybaras.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Borges beat me to it

"...It was time [abu-al Hasan] argued, that the old metaphors be renewed; back when Zuhayr compared fate to a blind camel, he said, the figure was arresting - but five hundred years of admiration had worn it very thin. To that verdict, which they had all heard many times before, from many mouths, they all likewise gave their nod. Averoës, however, kept silent. At last he spoke, not so much to the others as to himself.

'Less eloquently,' he said, 'and yet with similar arguments, I myself have sometimes defended the proposition argued now by abu-al-Hasan. In Alexandria there is a saying that only the man who has already committed a crime and repented of it is incapable of that crime; to be free of erroneous opinion, I myself might add, one must at some time have professed it. In his mu'allaqa, Zuhayr says that in the course of his eighty years of pain and glory many is the time he has seen destiny trample men, like an old blind camel; abu-al-Hasan says that that figure no longer makes us marvel. One might reply to that objection in many ways. First, that if the purpose of the poem were to astound, its life would be measured not in centuries but in days, or hours, or perhaps even minutes. Second, that a famous poet is less an inventor than a discoverer. In praise of ibn-Sharaf of Berkha, it has many times been said that only he was capable of imaginging that the stars of the morning sky fall gently, like leaves falling from the trees; if that were true, it wold prove only that the image is trivial. The image that only a single man can shape is an image that interests no man. There are infinite things upon the earth; any one of them can be compared to any other. Comparing stars to leaves is no less arbitrary than comparing them to fish, or birds. On the other hand, every man has surely felt at some moment in his life that destiny is powerful yet clumsy, innocent yet inhuman. It was in order to record that feeling, which may be fleeting or constant but which no man may escape experiencing, that Zuhayr's line was written. No one will ever say better what Zuhayr said there.' "

- Jorge Luis Borges, "Averoës' Search," Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Huxley

a very small endeavor

time-consuming, sloppy, kind of fun. Available here.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


I love mahlzeit.

Once a month, I leave the hustle and bluster of Munich and bahn it to Lindenberg im Allgäu, a town nestled in the foothills of the Alps whose most ready descriptors are almost inarguably small and cute. For three days, I teach English classes at Liebherr, stay at the Bayerischer Hof and wander around, to the amusement and puzzlement of the locals. When I go out for dinner at one of the town's restaurants, my entrance causes heads to turn and conversations to falter. She's not from here, everyone agrees. It's not, I think, that I look so different. It's more that everyone knows everyone here. Being here is a kind of inverse celebrity: I am noticeable and noteworthy because no one recognizes me. So they stare. I am inevitably reminded of the stranger coming in through the swinging doors of a Wild West saloon. Howdy. You're ain't frum around these here parts, are you? Indeed, I ain't. After a moment someone nods, offers a quiet "Abend," and everyone goes back to their beer, their games of cards. Someone gives a small bowl of water to the tiny grey poodle under the table. I pick a quiet corner, and pull out my book. Currently, Borges Collected Fictions. This inadvertently made a great impression on a man with a slightly weaving walk, who, as he passed me wished me "Guten Appetit," then peered at the cover of my large book. "Auf Englisch?" he asked, with a shake of the head. It's much more impressive that I read long books in English if you think my native language is German. It's much easier to think my native language is German if I keep my mouth more or less shut. I smiled. When I finish my meal and leave, everyone wishes me "Schön abend."

Once a month I have lunch in the company canteen. On my way there, while I eat, and on my way back to my classroom, I have the same conversation with everyone I see. "Mahlzeit," they remark. "Mahlziet," I reply. This is said in a matter-of-fact tone; again, rather like cowboys in an old western Awful hot. Sure is. There is no good translation for "mahlzeit" into English. The closest idea is "Enjoy your lunch." But, as I explained to my students, this is a wish for the future. It is not an appropriate remark to make to someone who has obviously just finished eating. A nearer meaning is "lunchtime," however, it is nothing short of amazing to me to think of this as a greeting in English. "Lunchtime," "lunchtime." Over and over. You might say it to thirty people in fifteen minutes, and they to you. I have happily despaired of translating this idea. It's not even German, really, it's part of this small company town. A word most commonly used here, a sub-strand of Allgäuisch, the local dialect. Engaged as I am in constantly explaining how to say things from one language in another, it's nice to have been given something that really has no equivalent. More than nice, there's something exciting about it. It forces me to remember the inventiveness and possibility of language, of communication, of nuance, of thought.

Mahlzeit ist die schoenste Zeit.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

now available at bookstores across France...

(awkward video still)



This is the box for language learning software put out by the company I work for. Thus far, this particular English box is only for sale in France. As far as I know, anyway. Buthowweirdmyfaceisonnabox! Immacommercial?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

subterranean film, bavarian ire

On Saturday night I went to the Werkstattkino, which is a pocket-size, art house movie theatre. It's also in a basement. (Don't you love it when alternative culture is literally* underground?) I saw Programm 2 of Oberhausen on Tour - highlights from the recent the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. Neat! The highlight for me was an animated short about an awkward and apologetic polar bear with an English accent who tries to make up with his equally English penguin girlfriend. Parlour drama cross with Ant/artica! Over tea and ginger cookies, he slowly, carefully, hesitantly, and with obvious embarrassment retracts his comments of the previous evening while she glowers, flippers crossed, on the sofa opposite (I didn't mean what I said, you're a beautiful swimmer. And you're really good at catching - small - fish.) Oh, I laughed. Runner-up highlight: when the credits for the aforementioned film rolled, and the man in front of me turned and said in obvious irritation, "It wasn't that funny." I have one thing to say to you, o my humorless friend: train your English!**

*I'm really glad someone else is already doing this, so I don't have to.

**seemingly for a variety of reasons, Germans rarely speak of practicing their English. Instead, they are inclined to say with a sigh and a shake of the head "Ach, this is heavy***. I must train my English."

***also (and of course I am speaking of lower level language learners), many of my students complain that "English is so heavy", translating from the German (schwierig), which appears to do double-duty for both heavy and "difficult". But really, why shouldn't language have weight? There is so much accidental poetry in non-native English.

Indischen Süßigkeiten

Pure joy.

co-opting never made less sense

the cover of a catalogue for a German furniture store.
Obama via Paris Hilton = marketing?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

it's a great time to have a hero

I never would have said this in high school, but I really, really want to be a cheerleader.

For Kima Greggs.

Actually, think I want to be her sidekick. Yes, that’s more like it. I would REALLY like to be her sidekick. As far as I can see, the only potential obstacles that could possibly prevent me from achieving this goal are:
- she’s a fictional character
- her show is over
- she doesn’t really need a sidekick

Aside from that, I don’t anticipate any problems.

If you haven’t watched The Wire, which yes I know is over, but I am slow – and perennially dragging my feet at the end of the pop-culture parade, long after the band, the mayor, the beauty queens, and the float for the county feed store – and so I’m only partway through the second of five seasons. Thus far, at any rate, Kima Greggs is a hard-ass, semi-butch, wise-cracking, take-no-shit, African American lesbian cop. What a non-stereotypical television character, and yet the show is written in a way that shows the variety of human experience and nature, rather than dealing in easily recognizable cardboard people. So she doesn't stand out as "different," she's not a foil for a cute blond ladycop. Kima ain't no lady. Don't take my word for it, she'll tell you. I’m having a hard time recalling when – if ever – I admired a fictional tv character to this extent. Probably the closest runner-up is Alex Mack, but that was when I was about 12, so a few things have changed since then.

But how could I respond with anything but unbridled enthusiasm for a female character that is smart, confident, pragmatic, tough, funny, bold, unintimidated and unimpressed by the shenanigans and horseplay of her less committed and generally less intelligent colleagues, who are almost uniformly male. I think Sonja Sohn, the actor who plays Kima, is nothing short of tremendously perfect in the role, to understate the case a bit. I wondered briefly whether I was more interested in the actor or the character, and quickly decided that while I’d be happy to see Sohn do something else in the future, Kima Greggs is the one I’m really rooting for. And I do mean rooting – I watch Kima with nothing short of glee, occasionally augmented by verbal encouragement. This is how I find myself at times: alone in my room, watching a 4-year old tv program on my laptop; generally silent, but with occasional cheers.

Which tangentially, reminds me of when I was grocery shopping this evening. There was an old lady, who seemed more than a bit off. She was walking in uneven circles, pushing her cart around the store, and talking out loud. At one point I saw her stop in front of the Haribo display, and start singing in a warbly voice “Hallelujah” over and over, until she quit because she started laughing. For a moment I thought: she’s crazy, and then I thought: no, she’s just like me, only louder.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

When I was a little girl, nobody ever told me that sexism could be so boring

In his tedious, unsurprising, and tragically unfunny article attempting to convince me and explain to everyone else “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” Christopher Hitchens manages to recycle or regurgitate most – all? ah, but who wants to count – of the dominant, easily accessible, and entirely unproved patriarchal platitudes about women’s relationship to humor.

Before you ask: yes, I am aware that this article appeared in a column entitled “Provocation.” I am equally aware that Hitchens is generally more interested in loudly exclaiming his point of view than engaging in any sort of dialogue. I could say, I suppose, that this is because he’s a man, and as such chiefly interested in the sound of his own voice. But I’m actually rather bored by such lame and predictable gender stereotyping. Would that we all were.

The article is jam-packed with such smug expressions of condescension as “…Women, bless their tender hearts, would prefer that life be fair, and even sweet, rather than the sordid mess it actually is.” Hitchens also refers to women as “cunning minxes;” whether or not this is an intentional slant rhyme with cunnilingus I’ll leave for someone else to decide.

Hitchens is not, of course, claiming that women have no sense of humor – after all, they laugh at men’s jokes. Nor is he claiming that no women are funny. He is happy to acknowledge that some are. Just not many. And not often.

He bolsters his claim of general female unfunnyness with such nods to scientific fact as “[women] are partly ruled in any case by the moon and the tides.” Well, of course they are! When I’m menstruating, I always think to myself: how lucky men are not to be partly ruled by the moon and the tides! Damn you, tyrant moon! When will you lift your cruel lunar tax, and give my people full enfranchisement! This of course explains why a woman can’t be president. She has a secret loyalty to the moon and the tides. Why, she’d sell the U.S. short at the drop of a hat! Or perhaps that bit was meant to be a joke. In which case, and it pains me to say this, I do believe I’ve heard it before. Starting when I was twelve and off and on with slight variation but without cease ever since. For a dash more science, Hitchens cites a Stanford University School of Medicine study which surveyed – brace yourself! – ten men and ten women. But of course, if it was done by Stanford, it must be conclusive.

“Good grief!” he moans at one point “Is there anything less funny than hearing a woman relate a dream she’s just had?” Yes. Many things. Let’s start with pick up lines, and move on from there.

Hitchens continues (and continues and continues, as this back and forth has gone on long past the publication of his article) to assert that men have to be funny in order to pursue women, and that women don’t have to be funny, because they don’t have to pursue men. He doesn’t seem bothered by his yawn-inducing attitudes of male as active pursuer and female as passive recipient of sexual interest. Not to mention his heteronormativity. But while we’re on the subject, let’s mention it. He never addresses this question, but I wonder: would Hitchens argue that gay men aren’t funny?

Furthermore, he is so good as to inform us that “[t]here are more terrible female comedians than there are terrible male comedians.” I looked for a citation, but it didn’t exist. Why not? Because he made it up. Because as anyone – anyone! – can tell you, there are far, far more male stand-up comedians than female stand-up comedians. Why that is may be a different matter (I’ll take the sexist climate of the stand-up community for starters), but the sheer wild imbalance of the ratio effectively makes his assertion impossible.

All of this, of course, not having been quite enough, Hitchens is happy to remind us that “[f]or women, reproduction is, if not the only thing, certainly the main thing.” Ah well, so much for the past hundred and fifty odd years of feminism. Glad that’s over with.

I do not feel compelled to make the case that women are in fact as funny as men. I contend that the burden of disproof lies with the opposition, and that I am thus far unimpressed and unamused – unless of course, the whole thing was supposed to be a big laugh at all of these outdated, unverifiable, and old-fashioned assumptions.

But I doubt it.

Perhaps I shouldn’t expect anything better from Hitchens, however. Despite his lefty credentials, he’s often shown himself to be primarily interested in polarizing and pontificating.

Of course, the truly interesting question here is: why the eff ewe sea kay did
Vanity Fair – which, last time I checked, was still a women’s magazine – publish this piece?

Maybe in a future issue, they’ll publish shocking – and provocative – works of “journalism” such as: Why Women Aren’t as Smart as Men. Too obviously sexist? Okay, how about: Why Women Aren’t as Interested in Making Money as Men. Because as we all know, women just don’t make as much money. Well, they’re just not as greedy! You see, women, all women, have BABIES, and so they’re more compassionate. More nurturing. Less cut-throat, less competitive. By nature. What, you don’t believe me? But it’s science!

p.s. I know that this article originally appeared in January 2007. Well, I’ve only just come across it, via something else (I seem to remember it being thoroughly panned in bitch magazine). Come on, you’re shocked I don’t read
Vanity Fair?
Add to Technorati Favorites