Man or Woman?

Just saw a puzzling person on the subway coming home. At first glance it was an older Turkish woman in a headscarf, gazing down at the floor as many do, especially when they are alone.

Something was irritating about this person, but what? A glance at the hands were jarring - they were big, broad, male hands. Okay, maybe she worked as a washer-woman or something.... Then I saw that the hands were clenched in a lap with the panted knees far apart - most women sit with their knees together (for obvious reasons) even if they are wearing pants, because they get so used to keeping peepers from looking up their skirts.

The person was wearing a short, feminine jacket, but the shirt underneath had a man's cuff on it. Really strange. The person got off with me at my stop, I dropped behind to observe some more.

The pants were male cut, but the sports shoes (which did not fit to the elegant fabric of the pants) were smallish. The gait was, however, quite a swagger, the way I would expect a man to walk. There was a knot underneath the scarf, Turkish women often have long hair which they knot high. At the top of the elevator the person needed to wait for a bus, and shoved both hands deep into the pants pockets, with the shoulders thrown back.

Was this a woman playing with gender performance? A man wanting to see how the world looks at you when you wear a scarf? A Turkish transvestite? Why do I care anyway? Okay, I am teaching a gender course this semester. But still I found it very irritating, not to be able to identify the gender of this person exactly, with so many conflicting clues.

Maybe Günter Wallraff is working on a new book.... if so, he'd better get a dress and learn to walk like a woman. (More hints and a wonderful animation)


Shopping cart blues

I thought I would whip in to Aldi in Neukölln on the way home, get some cheap ice tea, the teenager drinks oceans of the stuff and it only costs a third of the price here.

But first I need a shopping cart - none in the store (groan, probably it will be packed at the cash register), back to the parking lot, one shed is empty, the next shed has just one. I put my shopping-cart-coin in it, and head back to the store. And of course, one doesn't just buy this, but some water and some coffee and..... So I wheel out to the parking lot, pack my stuff in the car and want to get rid of the cart.

The reason the one shed was empty was, that all of the chains with the little dealy to get your coin back have been stolen, so you can't put your cart back here. On to the next, here there are two possibilities, but they are both taken by great big shopping carts, but the chains are too small, so the people have them in backwards. This means you can't get your cart near their dealy to get your coin back.....

The third was the charm, there was one thing, but on a short chain, the other two were stolen. I tried hard to put my cart back properly, but it was a big cart and the chain was just too short. With some amazing contortions I managed to get my coin back from the cart, but leaving this shed, too, in a condition of not being able to be used. I guiltly hurried past the guy bearing down on me, trying to get rid of his cart, too.

Now the question on my mind as I drove away: where are all of the carts? Neukölln is truely a strange part of town....



A few students have started an Islamic Students Club at our school. They invited some professors and student union leaders to attend a Ramadan breaking-of-the-fast this evening at the school cafeteria.

They organized quite a feast, there were about 20-30 people there. During Ramadan Moslems fast from dawn until dusk. When you cannot determine the difference between a white and a dark thread (the times are given in calendars for different parts of the world) then you eat a date to break the fast.

One of the hosts said that you start with water or olives if you have no dates handy. The first course served was a soup of yellow lentils. Then there was a nice spicy tomato and pepper salad, followed by a beef stew with rice, followed by some chicken (I gave up by then, being more than full).

For dessert there was very sweet, syrupy baklava and strong, sweet tea they brewed in an electric samowar. It was a lovely evening, and I am glad that they did this - showing us that Muslims are not just bearded suicide bombers but nice, normal people with families (one of the students had her baby with her) who enjoy good food. I felt very privledged at being invited.



I was in Vienna yesterday for the first time (I know, shame on me) - I love this city, I must come back!

The mixture of old and new, the wonderful Jugendstil buildings and ornaments, Fiaker (horse-and-buggy-vehicles carting tourists around for 40 Euros for half an hour), every other house with a placard and red and white flags marking it - "This is a house with a fancy door from (whenever)".

The Jesuit Church next door to the Academy of Sciences (Universitätskirche) is breathtakingingly ornate - and the organist is practicing, filling the empty church with music without having to be part of some ritual - it feels like this room was made to be filled with music like this. So much money invested in this church, so much gold, the pews are done with elaborate Intarsia... and of course by now my camera battery is dead. Follow the link above, there is a picture on the Wikipedia....

I sit and read the Gewissenspiegel, a guide for preparing for confession in the hymnals, while the music flows around me. Suddenly, practice is over. There is silence in the church, except for my keyboard clicking, as I attempt to capture this moment.

I go back out into the autumn sun, which is shining brightly, the buildings shimmer in white and gold. The tourists are speaking many languages, but the city is not filled to overflowing. There are places to sit outside everywhere. Still - I am a bit cold, I go into a coffee house, have a latte and an Apfelstrudel - this is by far the very best apple strudel I have ever eaten!

There is Frakturschrift everywhere, especially on the street signs, but also on just normal shop signs. I find an old street sign right next to a Starbucks - and a few steps on I hear an American couple exclaim: Oh look, they have a Starbucks here!

A friend who studied here in Vienna gives me a tour of the town at 11pm. The major buildings are bathed in light, although it turns creepy when he tells me that this one place is where millons stood and cheered as Hitler stood up on that balcony proclaiming the annexation of Austria during the Third Reich. We keep walking on and on, there is still another building to see. I am dead tired when I get back to my hotel - after midnight, and I have to get up at 5.15 for the first flight back to Berlin.

Yes, I have to come back here - and believe me, I am not coming back for a Starbucks coffee.


The Activation Key from the Apple Store

My new Mac had a trial copy of iWork on it, which includes Pages and Keynote. Pages has some cool features like folding away parts of what you are writing, and Keynote has some advanced coolness factor features for presentations.

I used the trial version to the last day, there was a button for purchasing an activation key online. No problem, I did that with Parallels (the virtual machine system that runs Windows XP better than my old Toshiba did), it took all of about 15 minutes to fill in that form, get my key, and carry on.

I checked out the prices: our school has an Apple shop, that was 79 € with free delivery, another one had a cheaper price but wanted 10 € for delivery. The educational discount at the Apple store was great: 59 € for either a box with a CD or just the activation key. I'm in a pinch I need the key NOW. So I pressed the button.

Filled out the forms, gave them my spamgourmet address so I can get rid of any advertising, if they don't follow their own guidelines, entered in the credit card. On the last window, the review of the process, it said: activation key will take 3 weeks to deliver. Come on, some bozo just screwed up the text for the online window, you don't need 3 weeks to deliver an activation key!

I pressed "purchase" and then went to my email. Nothing. Pushed "get new mail" a few times. Nothing. Took some stuff to the neighbors. Nothing. Cooked a great spaghetti meal for the teenager, cleaned up, watched the detective story on TV - finally, an E-Mail from the Apple Store.

"Ihre Bestellung wird voraussichtlich am 06.11.2006 versendet. Wir bestaetigen, dass Ihre Bestellung am oder vor dem 08.11.2006 an Ihre Lieferadresse geliefert wird." (Your order will be shipped on or about November 6. This means you should get it on or around November 8).

Hey, guys, this is an ONLINE order! You could have sent me the activation key with the e-mail, I would have been happy as a pig in mud. You need three weeks to manufacture an activation key and two days for it to reach me by e-mail? Do you guys use Windows machines at work or what?

I still had the window open for the order, and pressed the "How to set up your activation key" link. Got a 404. A nice pretty one, but a 404 just the same. I called the 800 number. "I'm sorry, you are calling outside of our office hours. Please call back Mo-Fr ....".

Apple, this is a royal screw-up. I am giving a talk on Wednesday. I need that key RIGHT NOW.

I just went back to the page to copy down what was on the offer page. "Your session has expired, please log in again." Growling, I enter the site again, and check my account to see what is happening. There is a little link there: "Einkäufe ladbare Software". Okay, this was translated by a monkey, it probably means "purchases of downloadable software" instead of "purchases of chargable software". I click - and there we have a registration code!

Just banged it into Keynote, and it works like a charm.

Okay, Apple, you need to work on customer communication here. And hire a real translator who understands computerese, don't just use Babelfish.

An Inconvenient Truth

I took my son, his girlfriend and her mother (who is blind) to see "An Inconvenient Truth" this evening. I've never accompanied a blind person before, it was interesting to say the least.

First off, in the subway where normally everyone ignores everyone else (we are in Berlin, you know), I was suddenly aware of being the center of attention - everyone was staring at us. No wonder the teenage girl hates going places with her mom. I didn't tell the mother, at least she can't see this.

She is very handy with her white cane, and explained to me how she holds the cane just so, so that she knows when the stairs are finished. She really moves with grace, although she can't see where she is going!

In the theater we sat on the sidelines, because I was expecting to explain a lot of the pictures to her. The theater was maybe a quarter full, if that, and this is the first Friday the film is playing in German. An inconvenient truth indeed.

What a lovely film - Al Gore as narrator explains all the the things he is showing in excrutiating detail. I very seldom had to read any pictures aloud. The mother was very happy, even though she was quite aware of all of the details, it was great to go to a speech and have them presented to you. Gore even reads most of the charts he presents, so he gets an A+ for accessability.

Of course, Gore burned a lot of fossil fuels getting to the places he was giving talks, lots of pictures of him getting on and off airplanes, and the film crew flew around a lot making all those nice pictures of icebergs calving and such.

At the end the credits are interspersed with suggestions on what you can do to stop global warming. As the mom said: we pretty much do all that (although I do drive my car more than I should). But when they got to "if you don't like the politicians, run for office" she said: "you know, I might just do that when my girl is out of the house!" If she does, watch out world, she has quite a mind for figures!

They came over to our place, the mom wanted to feel our apartment. We usually joke about the "50 cent tour" we give to guests, this was quite a different tour. She squatted down to feel all of the floor coverings, touched all the furnishings to get an impression of the place, and sat right down when she found the piano, playing a concerto! Her daughter was, of course, embarrassed and left the room, but it was amazing, she does not have a piano at home, she was playing this from memory from many, many years ago.

She loved the bathroom with the big tub, the Ficus benjamina that is taller than we are, and the spiral staircase. She even ventured into the teenager's lair (he hurridly kicked all the stuff from the floor under his desk and his sofa) and climbed the ladder to his loft bed. She was surprised at how high our ceilings are (3,60 m). I was surprised at how fast she climbed the stairs and got back down again!

The film is great and should be force fed to teenagers around the world (mine turned the heat up in the bathroom the day before yesterday to take a bath, I didn't discover until today when I found it uncommonly hot in the morning that it was on full blast, for 2 days now....). And to politicians, they MUST wake up and take action on this, or their beach houses will soon be under 6 feet of water.


Mode of address

I stepped into the elevator at school for the ride up to the eighth floor. There were four women already in the elevator, and they were discussing how to address a professor in an email. Since I had just re-read Thomas Horen's "Hallöchen, Herr Professor!" article, I perked up my ears.

"I just write 'Hallo'," one woman said, "you never know if they are Dr. or Prof. or what." "Oh no," said the next one, "I always use both, they seem to like it." I couldn't help it, I had to join in (I hear the peanut gallery hooting: you can never shut your trap, can you?).

"Oh," I said, "I do rather like the titles, but the most important thing is having my name spelled right." They all nodded agreement. "But you should always look up the title and use it correctly, especially if you are writing to a male professor." They were very much in agreement with that!

Today in the lab I tried to explain to the young students how I want to be addressed: "Dr. X-Y" will do just fine. I am not "Miss X-Y", as my Dad's name was X, not X-Y. I am not "Mrs. X-Y", cause my husband's name is Y, not X-Y. And anyway, "Dr." does sound rather fancy, doesn't it?

Of course, some special students and the students participating in chats with me and the ones who do thesis projects with me can use my first name nickname. By that time they have realized who I am, and we can dispense with the formalities.

I must admit to still looking around, though, when being formally addressed: Do you mean me?


You have a call!

A few months ago telephones appeared in our fancy multimedia lecture halls. I supposed it was because the technology is so complicated, that way people can easily call for help. Saves you the cost of calling on your cell phone.

Yesterday , in the middle of class, the phone rang. Loudly, and flashing a red light just in case I didn't hear it. I tried to ignore it, but the caller let it ring a long time. I picked it up and dropped it back into the cradle. Everyone laughed.

Thirty seconds later it started ringing again... so I decided to answer. I said: "I am in the middle of a lecture, what do you want?" The person hung up without saying anything.

After telling the story in the evening the suggestion came that I forward all calls from this phone to the chancellor, who is responsible for the running of the school. Great idea!


Deutschland. Ein Sommermärchen

Went to see the documentary film about the German soccer national team playing in the world cup this past summer, "Deutschland. Ein Sommermärchen" (Germany. A Tale of Summer).

Well, at 110 minutes it is waaaay too long (although my 4 male companions, all of whom spent the summer watching the World Cup together in various combinations noted that a real game can take 120 minutes plus penalty kicks). I mean, the locker room scenes are great (some slightly racy pictures, but nothing a gal really wants to look at...), but they tend to be the same old stuff.

And I don't really understand Jürgen Klinsman's Swabian accent, although when I see his swank digs in California, I understand why he didn't accept the offer to continue training the national team. I mean, a palace on the beach, you pretty much can't top that.

It is interesting to see more of the personalities of the players. Jens Lehmann comes across much more sympathetic than he does on the field (and he held "the note" into the camera for us all to see). Schweinsteiger seems to be the joker of the team, and Asamoah is really the life of the team. Some players can even speak complete sentences that make sense, while others, Abitur notwithstanding, can just barely make themselves understood.

The film makes clear what an awful lot of organization goes into getting the team on the field - I mean, the laundry and food and shoe service alone is mind boggling. The meeting with the FIFA where they have to show examples of their uniforms confirms my suspicions that this is a bunch of old guys making up silly rules just to feel important.

The drug control scene is really funny, I didn't realize that someone goes into the toilet cabin with the sportsman. What a job - and what an invasion of privacy.

Which pretty much sums up the film: we are voyeurs in the locker room. 90 minutes would have sufficed for the film.

Angela Merkel surprises (playing herself, as everyone does) with her pep talk and all her English sayings. And I would have preferred to have subtitles - on the field the players have their names on their backs, so I can tell who is who. Okay, Klose and Ballack and Schweinsteiger I can tell, and Torsten Frings is easy to find in the locker room with his tatoos and long hair.

54, 74, 90, 2010!


Stealing from the Mourners

We had a ceremony at the grave of our adopted son's birth mother today. She died 12 years ago, but we only recently met the birth family and have together put a stone on the grave. The entire family - for the most part, the folks who were at the May Day party - gathered for some lamb before driving out to the cemetery, even though it is Ramadan. It seems there is special dispensation for celebrating death.

We were a little convoy of four cars, me leading the way. It sure is difficult making sure that all the cars stay together, and I seemed to hit all of the yellow lights in town. It was a good 20 mile drive, the Muslim cemetery is out in the boonies. We parked the cars, and I am positive that I locked the car. I am obsessive about locking the car, even if I am only getting out to put in a letter. And more than one person remembered me locking the car, waiting until a cousin had gotten something out of the back of the car for her little boy.

The ceremony itself was interesting - everyone dipped their fingers in the earth of the grave, the little kids hands were dipped for them. My son's birth-aunt gave the wailing plaint I have now heard many times out at the cemetary, and then she lit two cigarettes - she put one down with the butt in the earth for her sister to smoke, and she smoked one herself.

Meanwhile some of the 23 people (one of the kids was counting) went off to look for the other family graves that are in this cemetery. When they came back, some of the kids helped "give the grandmother a drink of water" - watering the plants, wiping down the stone, and then everyone kissing the stone before they left.

I was deep in conversation with one of the cousins when it began to pour - I excused myself so I could go open the car for my passengers - and was irritated that they were already in the car. We pulled out, and at the light the cousin turned to dig for her purse to get out the train times - she was leaving with her kid for a week's trip to visit other family. But she had no purse.

Okay, it is criminal to leave a purse in a car in Berlin. But at a cemetary out in the boonies? We pulled off at the next parking space and she dug though the car - nothing. We called the other cars - did they happen to have her purse and her bag with her clothes? The baby bag was luckily still in the car. No luck. We called back home, two cousins were guarding the food. No, they had not seen the purse.

We drove back anyway, just in case she had not taken the bags with her. We turned the place upside down - no purse or bag. So while the major part of the party dug into the food, we drove back out to the cemetery with the cousin. We looked all around the woods, drove in both directions to parking areas, looking for ditched bags. Let the thieves have the money, but the clothes and the identity card were the most important. As an asylum seeker she has to have written permission to leave the city, and she had gotten this for the week visiting the cousin.

No luck. We found a lot of garbage, but no suitcase. So we drove to the nearest police station. The policeman was very nice, he inspected the car for traces of entering, but couldn't find anything. He took down all the information, and let the cousin call the debit card place to have her card stopped - with the card and her ID card, pretty much any woman could get up to the limit of money. He said that they get a lot of cars broken into out at the cemetery. It's wierd, 'cause the place is so deserted. But apparently, they find their mark, break in, and are off in their own car in a flash.

We drove back to the party, but they had all disbanded. There was still a lot of food left, so we got some warmed up and had just sat down to some food when my son's girlfriend came over. "Can I have the car keys?" "Why?" "I want to get my purse out of the car."

SCREAM! Teenagers! We spent all this time and nerves talking about a purse being stolen out of the car, and she doesn't think about her own purse until 4 hours later? I ask her why on earth she does not take her purse with her. "I thought it would be safe in a locked car."

I decided to eat first, breakfast had been at 9, and except for a bit of the lamb at 12 I hadn't seen food nor drink for a while. The lamb was great, even warmed over. Another cousin kept bringing dish after dish after dish of food - I honestly don't know where they keep this all! I was stuffed, then we gathered people together and headed off to another police station to add the third bag to the list. As we get out of the car at the police station, the girlfriend remembers that she left her coat back at the place we were celebrating...... I want to surgically attach her things to her!

But of course, we can't extend the list at this station, our options were: drive 20 miles back out to where we were this afternoon, or send them a letter or fax. I opted for the latter. I don't suppose we'll ever see any of the stuff again. I hope the thieves get caught using the EC card. And that their teeth fall out and that they get a mysterious itching rash in hard-to-reach places and that they get bit by a dog. Stealing is bad enough, but stealing from mourners - there must be a special place in hell for these criminals.

Update: The cops called a few weeks later. Both the purse and the suitcase turned up, sans money and valuables. But the clothes were still there. They had been dumped at the cemetery, we just hadn't looked hard enough, I suppose.


Bispingen and the Boat Lift

I had made some comments about Tropical Island some months ago, now I can compare it with Centre Parcs Bispinger Heide, the place I just spent 4 days with my family.

This is an artificial world set in the Lüneburger Heide, consisting of a slew of "cottages", a hotel, an adventure bath with surrounding restaurants and shops and all sorts of activities geared towards small children.

My sister-in-law goes there often and had organized two cottages and a hotel room for us to go, taking along a cousin and her family as thanks for taking care of my father-in-law.

I find this artifical world quite creepy - the trees are real, but kept clean of trash and animals; the water is H2O, but since kids constantly feed the geese and ducks at the encouragement of their parents, it is putrid; the cottages are nicely set so you don't really see your neighbors; the cottages have a fireplace, some have a sauna, sort of the luxury you can't have at home. And you pay for everything possible, and the prices are not cheap.

You can purchase wood (a little sack with lighter and matches for 4,95 €), food such as salt (1,95 € for a little container) and necessities such as saran wrap (5,00€ a box) at outrageous prices in the little shop. You can have rolls and newspaper (Bild-Zeitung, what else) delivered to your door in the morning and pretend to be rich, I guess. The food is expensive and bad, but you have a kitchenette so you can make your own. They even sell packets of all you need to make dish X (they call this "fun cooking").

The nice thing is no cars - so you can let your kids out to bike or skate or mess around without worrying about cars.

The "adventure" bath is the key attraction, but it does not really attract me. Masses of humanity fight for chairs and tables, the water is so thick with kids you can't actually see the water. People scream when they speak, I wonder if it is because at home the TV is always blaring or because they normally have MP3-players on. They are grossly inconsiderate, running you down, bumping into you, shaking water all over you, stepping on you, ignoring all the rules. And they let their kids run wild, after all, that's why they are here, for the kids.

The crowd is better-looking than the guys at Tropical Island, must be that the parents of young kids are in good shape. But it is so mind-numbing, no chance to relax and enjoy.

We had to check out today by 10.30 but could use the bath all day. We checked out early and got to the bath at 10.15, getting one of the three tables still left unclaimed. I really only enjoy the wild water slide, but after sliding 3-4 times with masses of unruly adults and children (sometimes even doing dangerous stuff like holding back until the press of people makes everyone take that last slide together, extremities in everyone's faces) I had had enough. The teenager had wanted to leave right after breakfast, so no fight here.

We packed up and left (our table was taken in under 6 seconds), said goodby to the rest of the family dining on Schnitzel in three variations and took off, just driving in the general direction of home.

I was hungry, and stopped off at the "Alchemist's Restaurant", but they were closed on Monday. Good thing, because shortly after I saw a sign for a Schiffshebewerk, a boat lift, in Scharnebek. Where there is a tourist attraction, there is food.

There was a lovely cafe with a great view of the lift, we had herring with fried potatos and a cream/apple/onion sauce the way you are supposed to eat it, while watching the elevator lift up with a boat in it. After lunch we walked over to admire it close up - how amazingly simple, just a lot of big wire winched up, pulling a trough up or down with a bit of water and a bit of ship with it - over almost 40 meters height difference!

Good technology beats artifical worlds any day in my book, but that might be because I am an engineer :)